Four penalties from Owen Farrell and a fine defensive performance secured a much-needed win for the British and Irish Lions over the Crusaders, easing the pressure on the tourists after Wednesday’s loss to the Blues.
The Lions improved for the second game in a row, making far less mistakes, particularly in defence, and had much better discipline, giving away only seven penalities, compared to 13 against the Blues.
The Lions’ coaching staff have clearly been adding layers to their plan game-by-game. Against the Blues, they added a set piece and improved carrying, and the performance against the Crusaders was typified by improved defence and more ambiltiion in attack. They dominated territory and possession and had more runs and more clean breaks than the hosts.
However, that ambition was not joined by execution. There was a lack of understanding in attacking situations that was inevitable for players, many making their first start of the tour, who are still getting to know each other.
That understanding will come with time, the question is whether the Lions have enough of it before the first test, in two weeks’ time.
The Crusaders have scored the second-most tries in the 2017 Super Rugby Season (74), it was the first time in 38 games they had been held tryless and only the second time in their history that they had been kept to three points or less, most recently in 2009, so to shut them down so comprehensively was a fine achievement for the players and defensive coach Andy Farrell.
The hosts looked dangerous in the first half, but unlike the Blues in midweek, were unable to create chances. Their pack, led by captain Sam Whitelock, caused plenty of problems, but that they were unusually quiet out wide, including All Black Israel Dagg, was testament to the tourists’ defence.
The whole Lions pack played well and all were worthy of singling out, but Mako Vunipola brought an extra dimension to the front row with his carrying and Sean O’Brien covered a lot of ground in attack and defence, raising an interesting conundrum as to which way round he and Sam Warburton might combine in a test back row.
In the backs, it was more a case of mixed performances. Good passages of play were rounded off by missed chances, typified early on when Jonathan Davies overran a pass from Farrell – probably neither’s fault, but emblematic of the lack of understanding.
Ben Te’o continued to be the most effective ball carrier on tour so far, consistently getting across the gain line, but his poor handling prevented his team from benefitting from those positions, while Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, on at full back for a possibly concussed Stuart Hogg, received some wayward passes, which they struggled admirably to turn into gains.
There was also some poor decision making. Farrell’s bad decision to throw a long miss pass on the Crusaders’ goal line in the second half squandered a great attacking position, while Hogg’s decision not to pass in the first half also robbed the Lions of an opportunity.
When Davies went off, also for a suspected concussion, Jonathan Sexton came on and looked much better in combination with Farrell than he had previously on the tour. Given the lack of early form among the centres, that may push Gatland towards selecting both for the tests, unless someone else makes a strong case in the next two games.
The Lions move on to the Highlanders in Dunedin on Tuesday, when many of the players who lost to the Blues will have a chance to put that defeat behind them. The fixture against the New Zealand Maori that looms next Saturday will be a test match in all but name – the Maori rarely lose to international opposition. Expect the Lions side that plays that match to strongly resemble the line- up for the first test the week after.