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.