Biologists have long said that lions will band together to hunt prey, if a pride works as one cohesive unit there are unstoppable. Here is where the British and Irish Lions have to learn from their animal namesakes, especially as now they have become the hunted and not the hunter. A wet Eden Park provided a dramatic, harsh but nevertheless real setting for the second game of the tour. The quality of the opposition was upgraded from the heroic Provincial Barbarians to the Auckland Blues who were viewed as the weakest of the New Zealand super rugby franchises, which is never a good idea to point out to any team. The Lions on the other hand were out to prove their mettle after their first game.
There was a haka before the match named “He Toa Takatini” from the Blues which means the strength of many, a first in their 21 year history. The Lions started with intensity as they looked to establish control and domination targeting the Auckland forwards. A 14 phase play would be ruined by indiscipline and hand the Auckland Blues their first try, manufactured from young standoff Stephen Perofeta fabulously feeding a long pass to Reiko Ioane who simply seared past Jack Nowell. The Lions did respond immediately only for the TMO to rule out a try for returning former Blues player Irish Centre Jared Payne with a foot in touch. Just rewards were received as the forwards engineered a try through patient maul build-up in the 24th minute. Halfpenny extended the Lions’ lead to 10-5 with a penalty from under the posts after several impressive scrums. Lions starting fly half Biggar was tackled by Tu’ungafasi which forced him off the pitch for a Health Impact Assessment, Johnny Sexton took his place, and the Welshman did not return. High drama would unfold in the overtime minutes of half time as Stander’s careless high tackle on Steven Luatua gave Perofeta a shot at goal in which he struck the post. Nowell rose to compete with Blues replacement TJ Faiane for the ball in the air but Nowell only managed to knock it backwards behind the Lions’ tryline – as a lengthy TMO review showed. The returning Williams then won the race to the ball and slid in to skilfully land his hand on the ball. Marius Jonker in the review box eventually awarded the try, Perofeta tapped over the conversion and the Blues led 12-10 at half time.
The second half started with the Blues nearly surging ahead but the television match official was once again involved and deemed that the exciting Reiko Ioane had a foot in touch after Jack Nowell did well to tackle him. The Lions seemed not to be able to cope with vibrancy of the Auckland team, hooker Parsons led a breakout from their own 22 metre line only for Duffie to fail in gathering an offload. Lions’ terrible indiscipline led to further punishment as substitute West put them 15-10 ahead. Further infringements whilst in the Blues 22 would lead to substitute Liam Williams being sin binned. The Lions would rally having a man down and come out of that period with three points. They retook the lead after the forwards won a penalty 40m out with a dominant scrum to which Halfpenny duly converted making the score 16-15. Unnecessary kicking away of the ball to the Blues led to another moment of magic as a series of offloads from Luatua to Sonny Bill Williams onto West who showed amazing guile and pace to score a sensational try under the posts. There would a further twist to this fascinating battle as the Lions’ had a penalty in the 79th minute, with only a converted try guaranteeing victory they opted for a lineout just five metres from the Auckland tryline as they had been imperious with their set piece. Somehow inexplicably they botched lineout as Rory Best overthrew, game was over. Auckland Blues were magnificent and disregarded their status as the weakest of the franchise teams albeit they did have eight All Blacks in the team. They played together and for each other- something that should be within the DNA of the British and Irish Lions. As for the Lions they have to realise they are a prized scalp to be claimed against every side they play. Solo runners into contact, indiscipline or a lack of cohesion and understanding will not do. They are the hunted and they must roar together to overcome and be unstoppable.
Ulysses S Grant once said “In every battle there comes a time when both sides consider themselves beaten, then he who continues the attack wins” This quote perfectly depicted an epic sensational semi-final thriller that the crowd and global television audience were treated to at the Ricoh Arena between Wasps and Leicester Tigers. Gladiatorial tussles entwined with late twists, it would be Josh Bassett that would typify the obdurate General and President words.
Two rugby giants of English rugby with 16 premiership titles between them converged at the Ricoh Arena, the Swashbuckling buccaneering style of Wasps unbeaten at home since December 2015 versus a Leicester side that has gone through three coaching changes and a captain with facing personal heartache . England coach Eddie Jones in attendance the prize of Twickenham in sight for one of these teams, it would take a Brendan O’Connor infringement for Wasps to get on the scoreboard in the first minute with a penalty that Jimmy Gopperth converted. Leicester’s Telanu Veanu dazzled as he tried to hit back only for his teammate Freddie Burns to unnecessarily put their side under pressure with a loose kick. Wasps took advantage with a lineout drive and the ball was fed to their superstar backline who combined well allowing Kurtley Beale to score. Would this be a rout as Leicester fritted away good field position and possession? Fortunately they showed grit and determination as they got their first points on the board with a penalty, Nathan Hughes failing to release the ball with poor body positioning after driving upright. Another penalty soon after and Leicester were back in the game trailing 10-6, Wasps would punish Leicester’s indiscipline stretching their lead a further three points. Referee Matthew Carley in his first semi caused some controversy, as he allowed play to continue after Wasps Danny Cipriani was hit somewhat late by Dom Barrow. Freddie Burns took advantage looping a huge pass to Peter Betham out wide to score with boos ringing around the Ricoh, bringing the teams all square after the conversion .The remainder of the half would see the Welford road side continue to give away penalties in their red zone, Profligacy from Wasps would only see them add only three points to finish the first half.
The second half started brightly for Leicester as they built pressure with phase after phase only to spill the ball at crucial times. However it seemed as if they were now bullying Wasps as they continuously beat them at the breakdown and this would translate into a forced pass by Wasps Hooker Ashley Johnson, Owen Williams tipped back the ball creating a try for Veanu to score. Freddie Burns who was having an excellent game adding the extras and Leicester led for the first time 20-16. It would get worse for Wasps so it seemed as they lost their Australian star fullback Kurtley Beale as he left the field with a leg inury. Leicester Captain Tom Youngs would depart the field to a standing ovation from both sets of supporters fully acknowledging the personal turmoil he faces. The match came to life as both sides threw everything at each other neither taking a backward step. It would take a man of the match resilient effort from Joe Launchbury to set up substitute Josh Bassett to score just as it looked like Leicester had done enough to win. Gopperth failed to convert leaving a nervy finish ninety seconds to the end of the match, James Gaskell managed to take the restart brilliantly and Wasps played out the remainder of the match. What a battle that ebbed and flowed, table toppers Wasps back in the final since 2008.
Lions Tour to New Zealand……………………………………….. Game one vs the Provincial Barbarians
Confucius one said “The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools”. This is exactly what the British and Irish lions must do in order to be successful on this tour of New Zealand. When you put on that red jersey it’s an honour and privilege that does come around too often one must play with all their heart, freely expressing their skill set. The team stuttered and splattered to an opening victory against the Provincial Barbarians; they looked very sluggish and had no real endeavour to their play. Stuart Hogg fumbling with his first touch was an inauspicious start and he then butchered an overlap with Anthony Watson outside him and looking to go over. Not ideal from the six nation’s man of the tournament .It was not Johnny Sexton’s day at all. His kicking was poor, which is only asking for trouble in New Zealand, and the Irish standoff fired out a few decent passes. The front five was average at best given the experience of Joe Marler, Alun Wyn Jones, and Rory Best. The tourists were not at the races as they squandered five try-scoring opportunities in the first half. Jetlag cannot be blamed for the lack of understanding and unforced errors, with the starting half-back combination of Laidlaw and Sexton failing to put their stamp on proceedings. One must not forget about the Barbarians, many of who are part timers and in their ranks included shop owners, sheep farmers and nurses. How comfortable they were on the ball? They showed an inbuilt skill set that simply does not exist in the northern hemisphere and played with unbridled passion. More importantly they had only week compared to the Lions two to prepare. Bryn Gatland has just a handful of Super Rugby appearances to his name but what would his old man Lions Head Warren Gatland have given for a fly half displaying such composure? Gatland Jr approached the game determined to enjoy himself and showcased the full extent of his kicking repertoire. He was not the only Barbarian to impress: Sevu Reece caught the eye on the wing, as did Luteru Laulala at full-back, as well as the replacement back-row Matt Matich. Positives from the Lions came from Taulupe Faletau who was outstanding in attack and defence. He came to the rescue on 13 minutes with a try-saving tackle and was held up at the other end as the Lions pushed for a five-pointer on the stroke of half-time.Wales team-mate Moriarty also impressed as did England duo Kyle Sinckler and Ben Te’o. It required the introduction of Owen Farrell at fly-half to change the momentum. The Saracen had only been on the pitch for six minutes when he first put Ross Moriarty through a gap and then provided the scoring pass for Watson’s 54th-minute try. If they cannot learn to play what is in front of them before the Tests they are in trouble. However this is only the first game of the Lions tour which will be heavily scrutinised. there’s no need for alarm just yet!!!!
After eight months of hard graft the business end to the season always provides unrelenting drama, excitement and this match did not disappoint. Exeter Chiefs looking very impressive on a thirteen match unbeaten run that has included six successive bonus points victories, unbeaten at home for eight matches and sitting comfortably on the second spot in the premiership table. Their opponents Northampton Saints were reeling from three successive defeats all of which they were leading with less than three minutes to go, would missing four key men prove too much? One can never write off such a star studded under achieving side.
The sunny conditions with a strong wind at Sandy Park provided a backdrop for some entertaining rugby. A bright start to the match was made by Exeter compiling a multiple phase passage of play, only for the ball to be stolen by Northampton’s Teimana Harrison at the breakdown fortunately it amounted to nothing as Harry Mallinder kicked the ball out on the full. They were not as fortunate with the following play as disaster struck when Ollly Devoto rushed a pass midfield allowing JJ Hanrahan to intercept and score under the posts. Things went from bad to worse as they lost flanker Dave Ewers and Prop Greg Holmes in quick succession to injuries.
The pace seemed to drop after such a frenetic start and there was a lull in the match, Jack Nowell livened things up with an exceptional finish over the try line. Match referee JP Doyle referred it to the television match official and the replays showed Nowell losing the ball as he tried to place it. Exeter would not be denied as Don Armand powered from close range after good work from the Exeter forwards. This seemed to revitalise Exeter as Devoto powerfully beat Northampton defenders notably ex England international Luther Burrell, only to be wrongfully denied a scoring chance by Ken Pisi who deliberately knocked on the ball. With that happening it left referee Doyle no choice but to yellow card Pisi , immediately Exeter capitalised on this and Olly Woodburn a Sandy Park favourite to score on the short side. The half ended with an Exeter thirteen phase play coming to nought in contrast to being under pressure for most the half the Chiefs led at halftime.
The second half started with frenetic pace from the Exeter Chiefs as their backline executed a brilliant play that allowed centre Witten to ghost through a dog leg defence and score their third try. Northampton’s JJ Hanrahan tried to stem the tide with a break of his own but did not have enough support as his backline failed to function with Burrell not having the best of games. Jack Nowell was profligate as he made a hash of the final pass to Turner that allowed Saints Ben Foden to try and intercept. Exeter Chiefs Head Coach Rob Baxter sensed another bonus point victory and he sent on scrumhalf Will Chudley to unpick Northampton , his introduction was almost immediate as his threaded kick was nearly picked up by Woodburn only for Foden to get back across in time.
The defensive effort by Northampton seemed to be taking its toll on the players as they were unable to contain Exeter who piled on the pressure and somehow Luke Cowan Dickie managed to get stripped by Saints Mallinder with the try line begging. Jack Nowell would not be denied as he secured the bonus point try on his second attempt after replacement Estelle had seemed to have stopped him. With sixty one minutes on the clock Northampton had made 171 tackles which were causing them problems with their play build up as they barely went beyond three phases. After another patient build up Replacement Sam Hill burst through the saint’s backline scorching past Hanrahan and Foden making the score 27-7 with the conversion to come. They would score again four minutes later with yet another innovative and incisive play this time the ever impressive Woodburn getting his second of the match. Northampton would have the last say as fullback Ashee Tuala scored from a Burrell offload, muted celebrations from the Saint’s men probably a combination of exhaustion and dejection. Exeters Chief’s with a champion like performance display euphoric.
Twickenham Stadium or “HQ” as it is affectionately known was host to final of gladiatorial delights, two teams with their own romantic backstories took to the field in a humdinger of a match. Wasps had not having been in a final for nine years faced administration and liquidation in between that period, before relocating to Coventry were back in the big time with an exciting brand of rugby. Exeter back in the final once again and hoping to exorcise the loss to Saracens the year before. Would they realise their dream and land the premiership crown? The last time these two teams met in February it ended in an enthralling draw making it difficult to predict, Match Referee JP Doyle’s last premiership final ended in a stalemate and had extra time. Ultimately it would be left to Gareth Steenson boot to settle the grand showdown.
A minutes silence was observed by all in attendance for the victims of the Manchester attack, Wasps had the bright start to the game as they showed their silky skills through their backline albeit missing Kurtley Beale through a leg injury. Director of Rugby Dai Young commented before the match saying “when Kurtley has been fit to play he has lit up the premiership and undoubtedly would have sizzled today” However it would be Wasps who would be penalised of infringing at the scrum, Exeter kicking for touch to relieve the pressure. More of the same would ensure as in the thirteenth minute Exeter executed a text book try from probably countless hours of video analysis, as they won a lineout which has been a weakness of Wasps all season. Exeter’s hooker Cowan-Dickie drew Wasp’s Thomas Young and created a gap for Jack Nowell to slice through and score, Captain Steenson converting to make it 7-0. Nathan Hughes for Wasps was having a huge influence had to come off to have a head injury concern addressed but not until he had set up a penalty for his team that brought the scores to 7-3. The error count from both sides was mounting as they tussled for supremacy, the dominant Exeter scrum would however induce a penalty that would allow them to kick for a lineout downfield.
The ferocious breakdown contest was providing quite a challenge for the referee as he incorrectly awarded a scrum to Exeter when it should have been a penalty to Wasps as Taylor brilliantly brought down Chief’s Devoto and was back on his feet and have his hands on the ball. Exeter took full advantage and orchestrated an overs play spreading the ball wide, playing a loop pass behind the dummy runner enabling Devoto to straighten and charge through the gap before taking the ball into contact, offloading out of the back of his hand to Dollman who uses his physicality to reach for the line. Again, Steenson converted making it 14-3. Anyone would be a fool in thinking that a whitewash was in store as Wasps mounted a resistance with wave after wave attacks that would ultimately pay dividends on the stroke of halftime,as Danny Cipriani popped a ball back into Taylor who surged through before passing to Robson who fed Kiwi Jimmy Gopperth for a simple run in.Gopperth adds the extras 14-10 to Exeter with oranges to come.
The second half kicked off with Exeter trying to make the hard yards but an excellent Nathan Hughes for Wasps had other ideas. He tackled Gareth Steenson wrestling the ball from him and then trundling through Townsend taking five defenders to haul him down. This allowed the ball to be spread wide to top try scorer Christian Wade who took advantage of a stricken Phil Dollman by kicking the ball downfield to chase, as ever the unpredictable bounce of the rugby ball was unkind to him but not to his teammate Daly as he scored. Jimmy Gopperth converting and Wasps were in the lead for the first time 17-14. Sensing blood Wasp’s Willie Le Roux nearly pulled off an amazing try only for him and Bassett running out of room. Exeter Chiefs Head Coach Rob Baxter probably sensing dejavu changed his entire front row in the 49th minute, it seemed to have the desired effect as end to end rugby forced Wasps to employ a high risk strategy attacking deep from their try line. The Wasp’s backline created an intricate play that freed up Gopperth, to jink his way beyond the halfway line earning a penalty which he gleefully converted stretching their lead by six points. Momentum would swing back to Exeter but they failed to capitalise on good field position, fortunately they would get points on the board playing up the middle through the “big men”, Waldrom, Parling and Armand. Parling losing the ball in the tackle… but it had been done illegally giving Exeter a penalty. Steenson converted the penalty and there were now three points behind. Drama would ensure as both sides searched for the killer blow, Wasp’s front five suffering from the pressure of the Chiefs. The noise levels within the stadium were of epic proportions as both sets of supporters will their team to win. In the 79th minute with Wasps looking to have won the game, Exeter once again produced their last minute heroics of last week as they built an attacking platform earning a penalty right in front of the posts and a guaranteed three points after the impressive Hughes failed to heed the referees call to leave the ball. Scores tied at 20 apiece and the game went into extra time.
The first half of extra time was scoreless, though Exeter looked the fresher side and with just minutes remaining they were denied a try by the television match official after an impressive 25 phase play in a pulsating match. It would take two minutes from the end of the second period of extra time that allowed Exeter captain Steenson to hold his nerve and land the winning penalty, crushing the valiant Wasps and vanquishing the memories of last year’s Final and realising their dream.
An all-time baseball great once said “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime”. Saracens certainly epitomised what Babe Ruth was saying as they belligerently made history joining Leicester Tigers, Leinster and Toulon as back to back winners of the European title.
Saracens took the field in a slow march but once referee Nigel Owen making history himself- officiating in his 100th European game blew the whistle, the champions roared out of the blocks and almost scored through Chris Ashton in the first sixty seconds. It needed great cover by Nick Abendanon, one of Clermont’s two English exiles with his fellow wing and ex Saracen’s Dave Strettle, to cut Ashton down.He would not be denied in a short while, as he raced onto Andy Goode’s grubber kick through the Clermont back line and celebrated his record score, moving one ahead of Vincent Clerc of Toulouse with his trademark swan dive.
It would be pertinent to point out that Owen Farrell had been the only Saracen to score in a European Cup final, as he slotted seven penalties to beat Racing 92 in Lyon last year, and two penalties in the loss to Toulon in Cardiff in 2014.The windy conditions were definitely putting the England flyhalf to task as he missed the conversion and audacious 49m penalty attempt.
Sarries had their second try on 21 minutes when England lock George Kruis crashed over at the posts, following a punishing series of pick-and-go drives from the Saracens highly pack. Farrell converted for 12-0 and one could help thinking that Clermont’s stigma of perennially failing in finals had returned to dog the French club and the thousands of their ‘yellow army’ inside a colourful Murrayfield. It seemed to spur the men from Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes as they did not fold and in a dominant last 15 minutes before the interval they nabbed the only try conceded by Saracens in first-half European rugby this season. Aurelien Rougerie gained a half-metre of space on the end of a lovely flat pass by Morgan Parra, and his midfield mate Remi Lamerat finished it off, with scrum-half Parra adding the conversion.
Saracens were uncharacteristically undisciplined as they conceded three penalties and one knock-on turnover in their opponents’ 22 in the first half, frittering away excellent positions. The breakdown punishment continued after half-time – which Exeter will surely take note of – Clermont closed the gap to 15-14 with a spectacular touchline run and offload by flanker Peceli Yato finished by Abendanon and converted by Parra. Saracens needed all their big-match reliability experience and with the introduction of the ‘’Schalks “ Britts and Burger was telling influence as a great chance for Saracens was missed when they Lopez managed to spoil an overlap, then Abendanon bravely halted a clattering blindside charge for the line by Billy Vunipola off a scrum with the match finely poised at 18-17.The next team to score would be in the driving seat and Goode got it for Saracens, as a scrum wide on the left gave them an open field to attack, Lions duo Maro Itoje and Vunipola drove hard into Clermont’s forwards, and the gap opened for Sarries’ mercurial full-back to glide in capping an outstanding performance and surely making Lions Head Coach think about including him on the standby list .Farrell converted for 25-17. “Cometh the hour cometh the man” however this would not be the case as Camille Lopez cracked and missed a drop goal attempt and penalty. Brave and valiant just not enough and Clermont’s bridesmaid tag would continue as Farrell’s penalty goal in the 78th minute ensured this, Onwards with Saracens celebrations and the quest for global domination.
A mouth watering clash beckoned at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin as Munster took on defending European champions Saracens… never has there been so many subplots providing the backdrop to a game attended to maximum capacity .
Munster propelled by the memory of their late coach and true Munster man Anthony Foley who died on the eve to the start of their Champions cup campaign whilst for Saracens namely their England international’s they had to banish the loss here from the six nations duty . Both sides provided a quarter of the Lions contingent touring New Zealand so playing well was a must.
Refereed by the unflappable Roman Poite the game started In true homage to Foley, Munster were ferocious in their play from the onset with wave after wave of attacks against a Saracens defence renowned for its tenacity which only yielding three points on the six minute mark as they tried to expose Billy Vunipola’s supposed lack of aerial ability, first blood Munster. A lack of control in the midfield allowed Saracens back in the game as an enterprising nearly was pulled off only for scrumhalf Wigglesworth to put down a pass from winger Sean Maitland, a certain try went begging.
The Munster supporters who filled nine tenths of the stadium roared on their team as they piled on the pressure dominating Saracens with territory, possession and yet it would be Saracens that would get the points in the scoreboard courtesy of a penalty honours even somehow.
Saracens were outstanding in their defence such that even with sin binning of Jackson Wray for a high tackle on Duncan Williams, Munster could not take advantage of the superior extra man advantage as the Sarries “WolfPack” line speed continuously pushed the Munster team back even from the initial start of attacking play partly also due to Munster having one out runners. The half time break looming prop Mako Vunipola showed his all-round skills and dinked a tantalising ball through with Chris Ashton nearly getting on the end of it , referee Roman Poite whistled for half time with Men from Allianz Park begrudgingly ahead.
The second half saw a significant change in the pattern of play as Saracens found their rhythm as a couple of chances were not capitalised on firstly with George Kruis showing his intelligence in picking up from a ruck and losing the ball as he tried to place it with close attention from replacement Deysel as well as Alex Goode’s pass to Ashton went behind with the try line in sight. The Munster scrum was feeling the pressure of the Saracens pack as they began to give away penalties with tighthead and eventual man of the match Vincent Koch leading the way. The pressure eventually told as Mako Vunipola finally took a scoring opportunity for the first try of the game. Momentum was definitely Saracens way as a trickle of penalties pushed their lead to 16-3 albeit before that Tyler Bleyendaal missed a significant penalty that would have cut the lead to seven points.
Munster Head Coach Rassie Erasmus made a raft of changes to inject some vigour into the attack and it seemed to pay off as his team went on an 18 phase play which manufactured drop goal attempt that Bleyendaal missed. Within a couple minutes Saracens capitalised as Owen Farrell kicked though a ball that Chris Wyles managed to recover and score. Farrell converting to make it 21-3 and the door seemed firmly closed on Munster’s European campaign as they conceded another penalty and the imperious Farrell knocked it over and seemingly exorcising the pain of losing there on England duty back in March. however these are proud men and their never die say attitude