Slow talk brings hope of change for Premier Rugby

English rugby’s powers continue to discuss the future of the Premiership


As discussed back in May, English club rugby remains in its precarious state. Then, two contenders for Championship title had announced their intention to refuse promotion to the Premiership if they won, because they lacked the facilities.

Over the last few months, the question of the Premiership’s format has continued to simmer, as it has sporadically for the last 15 years. In December, London Irish director of rugby Nick Kennedy called for the end of relegation, arguing that it would allow teams to better develop young English players. Self interest probably played a role, with his side rooted to the bottom of the table, but his comments came just days after the RFU said that it was open to the possibility, the first time it has not rejected the idea outright.

Premier Rugby is planning to extend the length the season from 2020 so that less of its matches overlap with internationals and its best players are available more often. But reducing the already too-short off-season and making top players take part in more big games is likely to make the injury situation worse and careers shorter.

The governing body, together with Premier Rugby, had in November been reported to be considering cutting the league to 10 teams, in a bid to ease fixture congestion and make the proposed extended 10-month season more viable.

Cutting to 10 teams would also make the Championship stronger, with two established Premiership clubs coming down to join it, perhaps replacing two of the weaker sides.

However, it would also shrink top flight professional rugby at a time when it struggles for visibility in many parts of the country and whichever two clubs are sent down would suffer financially and lose their platform to promote the game.

Nor would it be easy getting the Premiership clubs to agree to a deal which would relegate two of them down, especially if one of the big clubs was endangered by the move, as Northampton would be this season.

The alternative is increasing the top flight to 13 teams with Bristol, or 14 with Yorkshire, the two Championship teams which have the facilities, and ring-fencing the division, providing the financial security clubs need to grow on and off the field, but it would be an acknowledgment that Premier Rugby will not expand beyond its traditional markets for some years to come.

The worst of both worlds, a ring-fenced 10-team league, thankfully seems remote.

This has been debated on and off over the years, but rarely in such detail, and the frequency of comments by people in high places suggests a greater appetite than before for tackling the question.

Richmond’s impressive feat in producing an effective team (they are ninth, with six wins this season), despite being only semi-professional, is admirable, but also shows the realities of life in the Championship, where money is scarce and the teams are not prepared for Premiership life.

The option of a ring-fenced two division professional game, with promotion and relegation between Premiership and Championship, but no relegation from the Championship, does not seem to have much currency outside of this blog.

Is Zinedine Zidane too good to be true, or just too good?

How good a manager is Zinedine Zidane? Is he in the early stages of one of the great managerial careers, or just trading on his reputation as a player and acting as a stooge for Cristiano Ronaldo?

Last week’s gleeful 5-1 aggregate victory over Barcelona secured Real Madrid its first Supercopa in five years. The result showed which club is in the ascendancy, with Barcelona looking short-handed following the sale of Neymar. It was followed by a comfortable defeat of Deportivo la Coruna on the opening weekend of the La Liga season.

The Supercopa was the seventh piece of silverware won by Real in the short managerial career of Zidane and the fourth this year alone. Putting any career into context before it is over is difficult and when that career is 18 months old, impossible, but Zidane’s early achievements are so remarkable that they give pause for thought.

Retaining the Champions League last season made his Real the first team to retain the European Cup in 28 years. Real have been European Champions in three out of the last four years, beating Barcelona’s three in six under Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola, Madrid’s own three in five during the ‘galacticos’ era of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and AC Milan’s three in six a decade earlier, while Liverpool also won three in five in the 1970s and 1980s. You have to go back to the hat-trick winning Ajax and Bayern Munich teams of the 1970s to find comparable achievements.

Zidane’s Real are also the first to retain the European Cup in the Champions League era. It has become convenient to use the rebrand of the European Cup to reset statistics to zero and ignore its past, in the same way that the launch of the Premier League has been an excuse to ignore English club football before its own reinvention. Nonetheless, the Champions League era has brought a new structure and more teams, so retaining it is a genuinely different achievement to that of the early Real teams, Benfica, Ajax and others from before 1992.

Real also won last season’s La Liga title, in Zidane’s first full season in charge, all of which makes for a remarkable run since he inherited the job from Rafael Benítez in January 2016.

Whether this makes Zidane a good manager, only time will tell. Despite being the ultimate prize in club football, winning the Champions League alone is not a sign of quality and the 2012 winning manager makes an interesting comparison with Zidane.

Roberto Di Matteo inherited a talented squad of of highly-decorated veterans who disliked his predecessor, André VillasBoas. Within a little over two months, he led Chelsea to FA Cup and Champions League titles, but was sacked only six months later. His managerial career since has been largely unsuccessful, so it seems his real achievement was to give free reign to his stars, led by John Terry. On the surface at least, Zidane’s situation has similarities. He inherited a talented squad, with major trophies already to its name, replacing Benitez, an unpopular disciplinarian, and gave players the freedom to be themselves. Knowing when to get out of the way of talented players may always not be a recipe for long-term success, but has a time and place and deserves more credit than it gets.

Certainly, Zidane’s reputation as a transcendent player buys him a lot of credit with his team, many of whom would have idolised him growing up, and he understands how to motivate them. It gives him an easier ride than Benitez, who never made it as a player and was reportedly mocked behind his back for giving strict technical instructions to players despite it. Most famously, he tried to stop Luka Modric from playing his trademark unorthodox outside of the boot passes, whereas Zidane has embraced him for it.

Zidane has done more than be a figurehead though. There was a tactical shift in his first full season, recognising the value in picking Brazilian defensive midfielder Casemiro ahead of showier attacking players like James Rodriguez or Isco. He clearly has a technical and tactical understanding, but he will need to keep evolving in order to stay ahead of the chasing pack.

It may not have been a vintage few years for European football, with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the English clubs in transition, and Zidane has had one of the most consistently great players of all time at his disposal in Ronaldo, but it would be harsh to say he has benefitted from a lack of competition. That would undersell the young and tactically sharp Juventus and Atletico Madrid teams he has overcome and if it is just down to individual talents, then Barcelona would have been in the past two finals.

Whatever he turns out to be, the great challenge for Zidane is yet to come. Unless he has the greatest managerial career of all time, he may have to struggle with peaking early, unable to get back to the summit – like to another Champions League winner, Frank Rijkaard. If his success continues, perhaps he will be the next Guardiola, moving from one super club to the next. Or maybe he is not in management for the long haul and will return to a behind the scenes role at Real when his work is done. It will be fascinating and the world will be watching.

Recapping the Lions

Revisit the reports from every single match played by the British and Irish Lions on their 2017 tour of New Zealand

The British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand is over, but you can relive Corinthian Spirit’s coverage, should you so wish.

Lions selection is all about form, not reputation, was the argument, ahead of the 19 April announcement of the tour party.

The 41-man squad was unveiled in April. Months of speculation about the tour party was followed by months of debate and acrimony over the selection.


A jet-lagged Lions team struggled past a Barbarians side made up of part-timers in a low-key start to the tour.

The scale of the task facing the Lions became apparent as a brilliantly worked late try by the Blues handed them their first defeat of the tour.

Against the Crusaders, the Lions proved that they were a force to be reckoned with in defence, if not in attack, smothering the best team in Super Rugby.

The Highlanders fought back from nine points down to beat the tourists, who scored more than one try for the first time on this tour, but were left to rue their indiscipline.

The Lions passed their toughest challenge to date, becoming the first team to beat the Maori All Blacks in 14 years.

A disappointingly lacklustre Chiefs team provided little opposition to the tourists, who earned a morale-boosting win four days before the first test.

Like the test series, the midweek series ended with a thrilling draw, but whereas the 15-15 third test was a tense, low scoring affair, the 31-31 tie with the Hurricanes was an open and exciting game.


The All Blacks were too good and, crucially, too ruthless for the Lions, who lacked the killer instinct and cutting edge of the world champions, but scored one of the great international tries as consolation.

The Lions beat the All Blacks in a test match for the first time since 1993, capitalising on a red card for Sonny Bill Williams, but not before nearly throwing their advantage away.

A late Owen Farrell penalty and a refereeing controversy led to a strangely fitting 15-15 draw, which left the series tied, only the second Lions series in 129 years to finish level, after 1955 in South Africa. All that was left was to wonder what shape the Lions would take in four years’ time.

Match report: New Zealand 15 – 15 British and Irish Lions

A fittingly tense third test had a result that no-one wanted, but will live long in the memory

A fraught, nervous and confusing finale to the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand ended with the one result few had considered and none had dreamt of, a draw in the match and the series. Both sides clearly felt the pressure, making mistakes at key moments, and behaving like players who were all too aware of what was at stake: for the Lions, a once-in-a-lifetime shot at history; for the All Blacks, the only thing missing from their CVs, combined with the pressure to avoid the ignominy of becoming only the second New Zealand team in history to lose to the Lions.
It showed in the knock ons and missed line out throws that plagued the tourists, and in the uncharacteristic handling errors and missed kicks made by New Zealand.
For the home side, Julian Savea, such a prolific try-scorer, restored to the starting XV after a series on the sidelines, dropped what looked like a certain scoring pass in the first half, that would have given the All Blacks a two-score half time lead, while Beauden Barrett, electrifying and dangerous in attack, missed two more kicks after missing three last week, again keeping the Lions in the game and joined Savea and Ngani Laumape by dropping the ball when a score looked likely.
For the Lions, the weight of the occasion was exemplified by the usually unflappable Owen Farrell, who made an ill-judged long pass that ruined his team’s best attacking opportunity, resulting in an interception and almost a New Zealand score, made a reckless challenge that was fortunate not to be penalised, put a kick straight into touch and made a knock on in a key defensive position, all in the space of a few breathless first half minutes.
The Englishman redeemed himself however, with four out of four well-struck penalties, none more impressive than his last, three minutes from full time, from near the halfway line, which snuck over the bar, bringing the Lions level. Winger Elliott Daly earlier having joined him on the scoreboard just after half time with a trademark long range effort.
The game’s only tries came in the first half, both from New Zealand. Full back Jordie Barrett, 20 years old and making his full debut, rose high above Daly to bat down an inch-perfect cross-field kick from old brother Beauden, straight into the path of Laumape, who dived over to score.
The centre returned the favour later in the half, making a powerful run that sucked in Farrell and Jonathan Davies, then producing the slickest of offloads to Anton Lienert-Brown, who put the full back away to score.
Despite being 12-6 down at half time, the Lions stayed in the game through the boots of Farrell and Daly, and perhaps most of all, a superb defensive effort, marshalled by defensive coach Andy Farrell, who leaves New Zealand with his reputation significantly enhanced, an impressive turnaround after being sacked by the RFU in the aftermath of England’s disastrous 2015 world cup campaign.
If fluent rugby was not on display, there was no lack of drama. The Lions had their best chance to put pressure on New Zealand when Jerome Kaino was sin-binned for a high tackle, but only came away with three points.
The most contentious moments came in the game’s later stages. A debatable scrum penalty went against Kyle Sinckler, on at tighthead for the Lions, when it could easily have gone the other way. Barrett’s kick gave New Zealand a 15-12 lead. After Farrell pulled the Lions level, Sinckler redeemed himself, winning a penalty from scrum in a similar position, this time a more clear cut decision for referee Romain Poite.
The moment New Zealanders will debate long into the night came with less than three minutes remaining. The Lions failed to regather a restart cleanly and the ball was instinctively handled by Ken Owens in an offside position. Poite awarded a penalty, echoing a similar decision which cost Scotland their world cup quarter final against Australia at a similar time and in a similar position. The law, designed to prevent players from cynically stopping the opposition playing advantage from a knock on, is a harsh one.
There was a final twist in the tale however. Following discussions with the TMO and his assistants, Poite decided that Owens’ actions were accidental and changed his decision to a scrum, much to Kieran Read’s chagrin. The All Black captain was a picture of class throughout his 100th cap, but was powerless to change Poite’s mind.
The Lions barely held on from the resulting attack, just bundling Jodie Barrett into touch less than five metres from their try line, and after a moment’s confusion, Poite’s final whistle brought the game to a strangely anticlimactic end.
A draw was a fitting result for such a tense and hard-fought series. New Zealand were clearly the better team in attack, but will rue Barrett’s kicking woes and were shut down by a monumental Lions defensive effort. After a gruelling 11-month season and a tough six-week tour, that the tourists were able to keep tackling and stay organised to the last, was a display of the highest character.
Nor were they just defined by kicking and defence, sometimes it worked and sometimes it did not, but they tried to play attacking rugby and stuck doggedly to their plan. Ultimately they never quite overcame their lack of familiarity and cohesion in the crucial moments, and the failure to score a try today will frustrate them, but four good tries in the first two games was no mean feat and a fitting riposte to those who derided their lack of attacking prowess earlier in the tour.
Sam Warburton rebounded from being left out of the first test, making a real impact at the breakdown, tackling and carrying like a man possessed, and deserves to be hailed as one of the great Lions of the modern era. Davies, such a controversial selection four years ago, was perhaps the player of the series, consistent in defence, incisive in attack and playing with real vision – a man in his prime. Tadhg Furlong is now perhaps the best tighthead in the world, following a tour of energetic all-round performances, while Maro Itoje continues to live up to the hype, taking giant leaps every week. Indeed England might have come out of the tour best of all the home nations, thanks to the crop of relatively young players who have had positive experiences of rugby at the highest level: Itoje, Daly, Sinckler and Jamie George among them.
In the past three years, England, Wales and Ireland have all toured New Zealand and lost 3-0. Ireland’s win in Chicago last year showed the All Blacks can be beaten in a one-off, but the Lions have laid a blueprint for stopping them on the big stage. The rest of the world will take note, though whether they can make anything of it, remains to be seen.
New Zealand’s disappointment was palpable, but the whole tour has shown the incredible strength and depth of their game and the legion of world class young talent coming through. They are a side slightly in transition however, with young players at some key positions and those players have had their first reality checks. How they respond now, will determine whether they get back to dominance between now and the next world cup. It would take a remarkable turn of events for them not to go to Japan as favourites in 2019, but there are chinks of light in the armour for the first time since 2011.
Win, lose or draw today, this Lions tour has been a wonderful success, competitive on the field, well-supported off it, a boon to both the hosts and the home nations. Yet the future of the Lions remains in doubt. There were strong hints before the tour that this would be the last in this format, with European clubs not benefitting from seeing their best players flogged for an extra six weeks of rugby during the offseason, there have been rumours that future tours may consist of just six games, effectively eliminating the midweek portion of the tour. That would be a tragedy, in rugby terms, because the Lions are perhaps the last piece of romance in what is now a professional and ruthless business.
With the quality of rugby, the number of travelling fans, the interest from TV and sponsors, the Lions are perhaps the best advert for the game and there must be a way to ensure that everyone benefits, so that they can continue to exist in their full-blooded form in South Africa four years from now.
The third test result, while satisfying neither team, was a fitting end to an engrossing tour and series, a wonderful achievement for the Lions, who have historically lost far more series than they have won. Had this team toured South Africa or Australia this year, they may well have triumphed, given how both those teams are currently struggling.
A draw at least stands out for its uniqueness, only the second drawn series, after 1955 versus South Africa, and the first ever in New Zealand. It will live long in the memory.


New Zealand 21 – 24 British and Irish Lions

The Lions overcame an error-strewn performance to win a famous victory over the 14-man All Blacks

The British and Irish Lions pulled off one of the most remarkable wins in their long and illustrious history, beating New Zealand for the first time since 1993 to keep the series alive ahead of next Saturday’s final test.

A 24th minute red card for All Black centre Sonny Bill Williams was the game’s talking point, sent off by referee Jérôme Garcès for a shoulder charge to the head of Anthony Watson, but rather than handing the advantage to the Lions, it was New Zealand who responded better, dominating territory and possession for the next hour.

In fact, it took going down to 14 men as well to bring the Lions back into it, narrowing the score from 18-9 to 18-14 through a try from Taulupe Faletau when his cousin Mako Vunipola was in the sin bin for a reckless clear out on Beauden Barrett, that could have been worse had Garcès decided he led with his shoulder.

Faletau finished his try well, holding off Israel Dagg to score in the corner, profiting from the Lions’ first sustained attacking possession of the half. They had spent the previous 35 minutes crumbling under the weight of their own expectation, knowing that the red card was a golden opportunity to inflict a first home defeat since 2009 on the All Blacks.

While New Zealand efficiently went about the business of keeping possession and building pressure and penalties, the Lions made basic errors, dropping passes, kicking badly, making poor choices, and were only still in the game because Beauden Barrett missed three penalties.

Before the series, the world player of the year’s goalkicking had been identified as one of the few chinks in his armour and he wobbled today, despite succeeding with seven attempts for all of the All Blacks’ 21 points.

Faletau’s try seemed to finally settle Lions nerves, although Owen Farrell’s conversion attempt from the touchline sailed well wide, and despite another penalty from Barrett. The tourists put together another passage of possession, hooker Jamie George picked a superb line through the All Black defence and from the resulting ruck, Conor Murray sniped over the line, Farrell’s conversion bringing scores level at 21-21 with 11 minutes to go.

What had been a match fraught with tension then entered its most nervous phase, with each side playing conservatively and looking for the penalty that would seal it.

When it came, it was a harsh but fair call in favour of the Lions. Replacement New Zealand prop Charlie Faumuina tackled Kyle Sinckler in the air, but the Lions prop was jumping into contact as he received the ball, so while correct, World Rugby should reconsider the law and whether it is fair to reward players who jump into tackles.

However, correct it was and Farrell stepped up to kick the long-range penalty, giving the tourists three minutes to hold on for a rare victory.

Hold on they did, regaining possession and running down the clock before Murray gleefully kicked the ball into touch to end the game.

Strange as it seems after such a famous victory – winning a test match for only the third time in New Zealand since their single series win in 1971, the Lions played poorly for much of the game, far worse than last week when they lost 30-15.

The tourists’ lack of composure was typified by their indiscipline, conceding 13 penalties to New Zealand’s eight. Vunipola’s yellow card came only minutes after he had given away another needless penalty, among four in total, and after a listless performance last week, seems unlikely to keep his spot for the final test; replacement tighthead Sinckler twice had to be restrained by his own teammates from fighting with opponents; and even Maro Itoje, who had an otherwise excellent game, was penalised a couple of times in dangerous positions.

Warren Gatland called for a more physical performance up front and was rewarded with one, which, combined with the presence of returning captain Sam Warburton and a northern hemisphere referee, led to more parity at the breakdown this week.

When they did get possession, the Lions looked far more creative than last week with the axis of Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell, helped by the absence of Williams’ physical threat looming over them.

The Lions will be delighted that they stopped New Zealand from scoring a try, while the hosts will face some selection dilemmas ahead of the third test, with Williams likely to be banned and the goal kicking misfiring. It was would typical of them to trust their players and stick with Barrett at fly-half, but they may be tempted to reshuffle the backline, moving him to full back and bringing in Aaron Cruden at 10.

Had the Lions executed simple skills under pressure after the red card, the result could have been sewn up with plenty of time to spare, but that would have denied us a classic wet weather test match for the ages and the prospect of a grandstand finish to the series next Saturday.

Hurricanes 31 – 31 British and Irish Lions

Hurricanes fightback denies Lions final midweek victory

A 14-point comeback by the Hurricanes provided a thrilling finale to the midweek portion of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

The Wellington-based team capitalised on a yellow card for Lions lock Iain Henderson, scoring two converted tries while the Ulsterman was in the sin bin, to race back from 17-31 down and make for a tense finish that culminated with a missed drop goal attempt by Lions fly-half Dan Biggar.

Henderson was yellow-carded for lifting the legs of Hurricanes full back Jordie Barrett, the brother of All Black fly-half Beauden, and Barrett played a key hand in the turnaround, with the creation of one, and conversion of both the comeback scores.

It was a back and forth match, in which second rows Henderson, indiscipline aside, and Courtney Lawes stood out for the tourists, while Tommy Seymour scored two tries. The first came after Biggar opened the scoring with a penalty. Scrum half Greg Laidlaw intercepted a wayward Hurricanes pass, deep in Lions’ territory and, although he lacked the pace to go all the way himself, made it well past halfway, before offloading to Seymour, who raced under the posts.

With a conversion and another Biggar penalty, the Lions were 0-13 up, but the Hurricanes, the second-best New Zealand side in Super Rugby this season, struck back with flanker Callum Gibbins, who burrowed over at close range.

With Leigh Halfpenny on and George North moved to centre to cover for the injured Robbie Henshaw, the Welsh pair combined to extend the Lions’ lead before half time. A high ball from Biggar slipped through Halfpenny’s arms to Henderson, whose offload put North away under the posts.

Leading 7-23 at the interval, the tourists would have hoped for a comfortable second half, but instead the hosts struck right back through Ngani Laumape, who scored in the corner after a brilliant angle by Julian Savea cut the Lions’ defence wide open. The conversion and a penalty followed for Barrett, but with scrum half Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi in the sin bin for a high tackle, the Lions took advantage, first through another Biggar penalty, then Seymour’s second try, put away in the corner by North and Halfpenny.

Even with the conversion missed, the Lions now led by 14 points, but Henderson’s yellow card opened a door for the Hurricanes and they ploughed through it, Barrett throwing a huge miss pass to replacement Wes Goosen to score. Three minutes later flanker Vaea Fifita dived over the top to add another, right under the posts, and Barrett’s easy conversion meant the scores were level.

The last 10 minutes were deadlocked, the final kick of the game was Biggar’s long-range drop goal effort, which wobbled well under the crossbar.

In many ways, the game was a fitting end to the midweek series, being neither an overwhelming success or failure for the Lions. It was an entertaining end though, in the best tradition of Lions midweek games. Whether the likes of Lawes, Henderson, or even North did enough to crack the test 22 remains to be seen.

Coach Warren Gatland failed to use replacements Kristian Dacey, Allan Dell, Tomas Francis and Cory Hill, while Finn Russell only saw the field for a few minutes as temporary cover while Biggar received a head injury assessment. With the possibility that some of the starters will be in contention for the test side on Saturday, the decision not to use any of the ‘Geography Six’, was a strange one.

Afterwards, Gatland admitted that he had not wanted to cheapen the Lions shirt by bringing on players who were only added because of their proximity, but it raised the question of why he called them up at all, drawing such heavy criticism, only not to use them. It was an oddly indecisive moment for a coach who, for better or worse, is usually the opposite.

Match report: New Zealand 30 – 15 British and Irish Lions

One of the great Lions tries was not enough in the face of an All Black masterclass

New Zealand smothered the British and Irish Lions with a complete all-round performance to take a 1-0 lead in their three-test series. After a wonderful try by Sean O’Brien, the Lions went into half time only five points behind the All Blacks at 13-8, but after the tourists failed to take an early second half chance, the hosts never looked back, scoring 12 unanswered points in 17 minutes to put the game beyond reach.

A late Lions score by replacement scrum half Rhys Webb narrowed the scoreline and provided a little consolation, but was nothing more than that.

Despite the one-sided nature of the second half, it was a wonderful test match, equal part tense and spectacular for the better part of an hour, a lifetime away from the one-sided pasting that the 2005 Lions received and which many had feared today.

Warren Gatland’s side provided a first half retort to those who had criticised their style of rugby on tour, showing a real desire to score tries. The problem was that their execution let them down at key moments and that they were facing a team that oozed class and composure as befitting their world champion status.

The All Blacks gave an almost flawless display of skill and decision making under pressure. Each of their tries was opportunist and taken without hesitation, and each featured at least one remarkable piece of skill or athleticism, executed with sublime ease.

Yet it was the Lions who made a fast start in the second minute with Jonathan Davies, giving notice of one of the games of his life, taking a pass from Owen Farrell at an excellent angle and driving deep into All Black territory. He found Conor Murray whose pace could not quite carry him away from the covering defenders, dragged down by the remarkably athletic second row Brodie Retallick just short of the line.

But from the ruck, the Lions went blind rather than open and Elliott Daly was bundled into touch. It was a sign of things to come, that despite creating an unexpected opportunity, they lacked the composure to finish it.

It was New Zealand who got on the scoreboard first, courtesy of a Beauden Barrett penalty, and in the 17th minute they showed the Lions what ruthlessness looks like.

Time and time again, teams which play New Zealand find out that to switch off during breaks in play is to invite a self-inflicted wound, just ask England in 2014, and yet the Lions did just that. With an easily kickable penalty close to the posts, scrum half Aaron Smith noticed a slight overlap, tapped and threw the ball wide, where Codie Taylor scooped a low pass and streaked past Daly, who was too narrow, to score in the corner.

It was a remarkable pickup off his bootlaces by the second-choice hooker, playing because of Dane Coles’ concussion, leaving Daly to rue his positioning and the Lions their lack of awareness.

Farrell and Barrett then exchanged penalties, before the Lions sprung into life late in the half. Warren Gatland’s normal preference for conservative full backs, meant it was a surprise when Liam Williams was selected ahead of Leigh Halfpenny, and that gamble was rewarded by what happened next.

Under pressure deep in his own 22, Williams stepped away from one tackler, but having bought himself space, rather than kick, chose to counter attack, stepping past another and running away from the cover defenders to halfway. Davies and Daly provided support, two passes and neat in-and-out move from Daly putting the former away, and when Davies was tackled just short of the line, Sean O’Brien arrived on his shoulder to finish off a 90-metre try, one of the greatest in the Lions’ modern era.

A missed conversion denied the Lions the chance to go in at half time within three points, but they would have been delighted with their fightback and that they had gone toe-to-toe with the world champions in terms of verve for 40 minutes. It was as close as they would come.

After the second half kicked off, the red shirts again broke deep into All Black territory, but Ben Te’o slipped and the chance went begging.

Coming into the match, the Lions’ great hope had been that they would win the forward battle and dominate the Crusaders front five which they had outscrummaged two weeks ago. Instead, New Zealand had the better of the set piece. An All Black scrum on the Lions’ 22 surged forward, Kieran Read scooped up the ball and offloaded it with a single, sublime move. The backline needed no second invitation, sending Rieko Ioane, who had such success against the Lions in a Blues shirt earlier in the tour, over in the corner.

Barrett converted from wide on the left, the All Black fly-half’s kicking had been identified as a rare weakness ahead of the series, but he was flawless, whereas Farrell, normally one of the world’s best, was starved of opportunities and missed the conversion of O’Brien’s try.

Barrett added another penalty and soon another conversion. Now 15 points down, the Lions began to look ragged chasing the game and a clearance kick was fumbled by Williams, allowing Ioane to slip between him and Daly and race away down the left touchline to land the killer blow.

The game was now long gone and although Webb’s late snipe across the line added a little respectability, there was no doubt which team had dominated.

For the All Blacks, the only concern will be the injuries they racked up during the game, notably losing full back Ben Smith and centre Ryan Crotty, but the quality of replacement they brought on, Aaron Cruden and Anton Lienert-Brown, meant no respite for the tourists.

For the Lions, the decision to select Peter O’Mahoney ahead of Sam Warburton as flanker and captain was the right one, based on tour form, but the way South African referee Jaco Peyper allowed New Zealand to slow down or turnover the ball at the breakdown, Gatland may feel that they missed Warburton’s skills in that area as well as his referee management.

The 6-11 penalty count and the fact that Farrell had few chances, certainly reinforce the fact that New Zealand played Peyper much better.  The Lions will welcome the more conservative approach to turnovers that they should get from French referees Jérôme Garcès and Romain Poite in the next two tests, but it may be too little, too late.

Setting aside injury, the big question will be whether to make wholesale changes or accept that the team created good opportunities and hope that a week of extra familiarity will make the difference in getting them across the line. If changes are to be made, Te’o’s poor passing game, Farrell’s inability to bring the backline to life inside the 22 and the lack of an advantage up front will all be looked at.

George Kruis had a poor game, committing drops and turnovers, while Alun Wyn Jones was quiet. Second row had been one of the Lions’ great strengths of the tour but the much-anticipated clash with the world class Retallick and Sam Whitelock failed to transpire.

On the positive side, the back three were dangerous, the inside defence was solid and Davies made a series of clean line breaks, but the lack of support runners, especially during the second half, made it impossible to turn them into points. It was notable that the Lions’ only try came when the support materialised.

Regardless, the overriding thoughts this week will be of an All Black masterclass and whether any changes will be enough to keep the series alive next Saturday.