The Lions earned the biggest win of their tour of New Zealand so far by overpowering the Maori All Blacks on a very wet night at the Rotorua International Stadium.
The tourists’ victory was built on a dominant performance by the forwards, playing the conditions better than the home team and for the second Saturday running, a defence that smothered their opponents. But despite outscoring the Maori two tries to one, their inability to finish off scoring chances remains a significant concern with the first test against the All Blacks looming next week.
The Maori All Blacks are a tougher opponent than many test teams; they had not lost to international opposition since facing England in 2003, and beat the Lions on their last encounter 12 years ago, so a win in Rotorua is a significant achievement for the tourists.
The first half established the pattern for the game, the Lions dominated territory and possession, earning four first half penalties from Leigh Halfpenny, but were unable to break down the defence and put away try scoring opportunities. The most notable came from a break by Jonathan Davies, who had a good game, consistently making ground with the ball in hand. Dragged down just short of the line, the Lions could have gone wide, but instead their structure broke down, the ball found George Kruis at first receiver and they went for a series of unsuccessful blunt drives at the line instead.
It was remarkably similar to a later second half attack in which the Lions’ other centre, Ben Te’o, who also had another impressive outing as a ball carrier, made a clean 20 metre break deep into Maori territory, but lacked support and the chance went begging.
Instead it was the Maori who scored the only try of the first half. A wild offload by Taulupe Faletau in midfield led to a turnover. A speculative kick ahead by Nehe Milner-Skudder was fumbled on the wet surface by George North and Liam Messam was able to touch down the subsequent kick through and score.
It seemed ominous that the Maori had scored the game’s only try without creating any chances, meaning that the Lions only led by two points at half time. But in the second half there were no further defensive lapses and the only question became whether they could turn their own dominance into tries.
To a certain degree they succeeded. Consistent pressure up front led to a penalty try against the Maori for wheeling the scrum, and just three minutes later, Maro Itoje powered his way over the line at close range. It was a well-deserved try, the highlight of a fine all-round performance by Itoje which presses his claim for a place in the test side at the most competitive position.
It was one of several strong physical performances up front. Captain for the day Peter O’Mahony was an integral part of the effort in defence and at close quarters, hooker Jamie George had a strong all-round game, Faletau was ever-present and consistently made ground with the ball in hand, and although Sean O’Brien had a few handling errors he put in a strong performance in attack and defence for the second week in a row.
In the backs, Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton played the conditions well, with a measured tactical kicking performance, although Sexton’s inability to get much out of the backs inside the 22 was notable. Both centres, Te’o and Davies, made lots of ground with the ball in hand, both through clean breaks and simple power. It would be consistent with Warren Gatland’s history to want to pair two similarly big ball carriers and so not a surprise if this pair, or one of them and Robbie Henshaw started the first test next week, especially if Owen Farrell’s hamstring does not recover and Gatland is not tempted by the different dimension that Jonathan Joseph brings with his pace and sidestepping.
Out wide, there was little to judge the Lions by, North has been starved off the ball throughout the tour and has looked short of form since the start of the season, only coming to life late in the Six Nations when given some ball to run on to and Anthony Watson shared his fate today, with little to do. Halfpenny on the other hand, was not seen much in attack, but his kicking and defensive work were impressive and make him a likely starter next Saturday.
For the Maori, it was a tough evening. The back row of Akira Ioane, Elliot Dixon and Liam Messam made it hard for the tourists on the floor, and fly-half Damian McKenzie kicked well in the first half, but as the Lions’ pack turned the screw, he and fellow half-back Tawera Kerr-Barlow were starved of possession and could do little but go backwards.
That will please the Lions most. Again, they continued to improve, making the breaks that they failed to make last week, and turning pressure into points. But the test players will not play against the Chiefs on Tuesday, so the only remaining chance to learn how to turn attacking chances into tries will come on the training field.
The All Blacks were in ominous form in their first test match of the season on Friday, thumping Samoa 78-0 and showing remarkable cohesion in the first half. It is unlikely that their backs will be shut down as the Maori and Crusaders backs have been in the past two weeks. The Lions must find a way across the white line whenever they get the chance to score.