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

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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.

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.

Match report: Highlanders 23 – 22 British and Irish Lions

Three Lions tries were not enough to beat a tenacious Highlanders perfomance

For the second time in the space of a week, a 73rd minute score denied the Lions a midweek win on their tour of New Zealand. Last week, it was Ihaia West’s stunning try under the posts, here it was a penalty from Marty Banks that completed the Highlanders’ comeback from a nine-point deficit midway through the second half in Dunedin.

The tourists will rue their missed opportunities however, Dan Biggar missed a difficult touchline conversion, Owen Farrell missed a penalty, seconds after arriving on the pitch as a replacement, and a long range Elliot Daly effort narrowly fell short after referee Angus Gardner prevented him from stealing a few crucial yards when setting up the kick.

The knowledge that the win was within their grasp will be some consolation once the disappointment fades and although it meant there was no reward for scoring more than one try for the first time on tour, three in total, it will encourage them that they outscored the Highlanders in that regard.

However, the discipline, much improved on Saturday against the Crusaders, was back to the bad ways of last Wednesday’s defeat to the Blues, giving away 12 penalties to the hosts’ seven, and the inability to satisfy Gardner at the scrum and breakdown will worry the management, although two of the tests will be refereed by northern hemisphere officials.

TRADING SCORES

The Highlanders are fifth in Super Rugby this season, fourth among the New Zealand teams, and started well, with wing Waisake Naholo looking ominous. Like last week’s star performer Sonny Bill Williams, the Lions can expect to see him again, in an All Black jersey, before the tour is over.

Last ditch defending kept Naholo in check for 25 minutes, while both sides exchanged penalties, but he eventually proved too much to handle, powering through tacklers to score under the posts, leaving Courtney Lawes unconscious in his wake, after his head struck Naholo’s elbow.

The suspected concussion will be a concern, Lawes was on excellent form and looking like a test starter with his all-round contribution to the tour.

The Lions struck back just four minutes later. With the test centre pairing still uncertain, eyes were on Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph as a possible combination. Henshaw was solid throughout and his physical style makes him a likely Gatland favourite. Joseph did not have a flawless match, but sparkled at key moments in attack and scored the Lions’ first try after good offloads from CJ Stander and Dan Biggar, outpacing the covering defenders to score from outside the 22. Biggar’s conversion meant scores were level at half time.

The Lions began the second half in spectacular fashion. Highlanders fly half Lima Sopoaga attempted a trademark All Black crossfield kick-pass but Tommy Seymour was alive to it, the Scottish wing gambling and winning by rushing up to intercept and run through unopposed to score the Lions’ second try.

After a Sopoaga penalty kept the Highlanders in touch, two good runs from Joseph got the Lions close to the line before Sam Warburton scooped up the ball from an Iain Henderson carry, benefited from some canny blocking by Alun Wyn Jones and powered over the line with a defender on his back.

The conversion gave the Lions a nine-point lead and with 27 minutes remaining, raised their hopes of running away with the game.

It was not to be. The Highlanders’ pack kept the pressure on and just six minutes later their pack scored a pushover try from a lineout, Liam Coltman the beneficiary. As the half went on, the Lions’ goal kicks went astray and the Highlanders waited for their opportunity, which came from a scrum penalty wide on the right. After the game, the Lions’ coaches and players would question the referee’s decision. Replacement Highlanders loosehead Aki Seiuli certainly seemed to be boring in, but the home scrum was on the front foot and Gardner did not hesitate. Nor did Banks, his kick denying the Lions two wins in a row, despite an encouraging performance.

The visitors have improved on every outing so far on this tour, but their next stop is their most daunting yet, against the Maori All Blacks, who have not lost to an international opponent since playing England 14 years ago, and are usually a tougher test than many international teams. Warren Gatland’s line-up should give a close indication of his expected XV for the first test, bar one or two, such as Warburton, who played today.