Jack Nowell was the star as the Lions secured a morale-boosting midweek win over a lacklustre Chiefs team. The Exeter and England wing, who had struggled for form in New Zealand, scored two tries, one an opportunistic pick and drive, the other an incisive swerving run that capped off the tourists’ best move of the tour so far.
With most of the team selected by the Lions for this game unlikely to figure in Saturday’s first test, the players knew it would take something spectacular to force their way back into the reckoning and a few may have managed to do just that.
Elliot Daly showed his speed and all-round skill, and his versatility and long range kicking may yet earn him a spot on the bench, while second row Courtney Lawes picked up where he left off before last week’s head injury, reminding head coach Warren Gatland that perhaps none of the others at the squad’s most competitive position make quite the physical impact that he does. In the front row, Dan Cole was remarkably sprightly, particularly with a spectacular cover tackle of the fleet-footed Tim Nanai-Williams, making the point that Kyle Sinckler does not have the monopoly on athleticism at tight head.
Shorn of their All Blacks, including fly half Aaron Cruden, openside flanker Sam Cane and scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow, the Chiefs were some way short of the standard that took them to the Super Rugby semi-final last year and has them sixth in this year’s tournament, third among New Zealand teams.
After both sides exchanged penalties, it was the Lions who scored the only try of the first half, giving notice that they had found the cohesion, familiarity and timing that had been missing from their attacking play previously on this tour.
Slick hands from Dan Biggar found a clever arcing run by Liam Williams, reviving good service for the first time on tour and another dangerous runner who could yet figure in the test series. His pass put Nowell away down the right touchline, eventually tackled deep inside the 22. After the ball was recycled and went through a couple of phases, Biggar seized on half a gap to the left of the posts, dragged down just short of the line. Despite being well away from his right wing, Nowell popped up at the base of ruck to dive over, opportunistically.
Leading 6 – 13 at half time, the Lions gradually exerted pressure early in the second half. A maul from a five metre line out was pulled down by Chiefs flanker Mitchell Brown, and after Iain Henderson was held up over the line, referee Jerome Garces handed them the penalty try and an automatic seven points, as well as a yellow card for Brown.
From then on there was no turning back. The Chiefs could not score a second half point, capping another impressive defensive performance from the tourists, and just before the hour, Nowell’s second was a gem.
The home team created a scoring opportunity with an attacking line out 10 metres from the Lions’ line, but confusion reigned before the throw, which missed its target. Justin Tipuric seized on the loose ball, which went through the hands of the backline, allowing Williams to draw defenders and release Daly, whose pace took him across halfway. Two well-judged offloads proved the tourists’ improved commitment to keeping the ball alive and after Jared Payne was dragged down, Lawes played scrum half, allowing Biggar to release the ball to the right, where it found Nowell outside the 22, from where he outpaced one man on the outside, before stepping inside the cover and diving over to cap off an almost length of the field effort.
Five minutes later, he turned provider, gathering a misjudged Chiefs chip and finding Williams, who hit a wonderful angle at pace, swerving and stepping before finding Payne on his shoulder to score under the posts. With 16 minutes to go, Biggar’s conversion was the last score of the match, but the damage was done and there was little threat from the Chiefs.
The replacements bench was unusually under-used for a modern professional game and little was seen of the controversial recent additions to the squad, with only Scottish prop Allan Dell and Welsh scrum half Gareth Davies seeing any playing time, alongside original tourists Alun Wyn Jones and Tommy Seymour. Expect the late arrivals to play more of a role next Tuesday in the final midweek game, against the Highlanders.