Recapping the Lions

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

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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.

TOUR MATCHES

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.

TEST SERIES:

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.

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.

Match report: Blues 22 – British and Irish Lions 16

Late try shows the scale of the Lions’ task as the Blues win famous victory

A stunning late try from Ihaia West was the knockout blow as the Blues beat the British and Irish Lions in the second match of their tour in wet and windy Auckland.

The fly-half’s try, scored with six minutes to go, was a glimpse of the dangers that the Lions will face in every game from here on. Sonny Bill Williams capped an imposing performance by breaking the line and producing a trademark slick offload to meet West’s perfectly timed run, which took him around Leigh Halfpenny to score under the posts.

It came just three minutes after a Halfpenny penalty had given the Lions a one-point lead, raising the tourists’ hopes of turning a much-improved, if limited performance into a hard-fought win.

Following Saturday’s sluggish win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, an entirely new Lions line-up played with much more structure and purpose, and it was clear that Warren Gatland and his coaches are taking a game-by-game approach to building their tactics. Against the Blues, the focus was on basics. The scrum and lineout were both solid and there was strong carrying through the midfield, getting them onto the front foot.

The Blues however, had all the incision and danger. Rieko Ioane was threatening every time the ball went to him, and he scored the first try, speeding over on the left after some well-worked misdirection in midfield.

Either side of that, Lions centre Jared Payne, playing against his former team, came close, first hacking on a loose ball which went dead in goal and second diving over in the corner but trailing a foot in touch.

Despite offering little guile, the tourists did show some attacking intent, kicking multiple penalties to the corner and it was one of those that brought them back into the game, a driving maul from a lineout pushing Ireland’s CJ Stander over for a try.

A fine touchline conversion by Halfpenny, followed by a penalty, should have been enough to ensure a half time lead, but in the final play of the half, Stander tackled high, the resulting penalty clanged off the post and in the scramble, Williams just beat Lions hands to touch the ball down under the posts, the conversion making the Blues 12-10 leaders at half time.

After the half, they continued to look dangerous, but the Lions deteriorated. Johnny Sexton, who replaced Dan Biggar due to a head injury shortly before halftime, continued his poor recent run of form, losing the shape that the Welshman had given the team.

Both teams chipped away at each other with penalties in poor conditions, but the Lions’ discipline was particularly weak throughout, conceding 13 penalties, summed up by Liam Williams spending 10 minutes in the sin bin for a tackle in the air.

Nonetheless, the conditions and Lions’ direct tactics put them in a position to secure a second win when Halfpenny kicked his third and final penalty. But Sonny Bill Williams’ offload to West undid that. It was a fitting contribution from the star centre who was the best player on the field, constantly making ground through midfield and back to his offloading best. Williams is hoping to win back his All Black place following his ill-fated sojourn in sevens last year, and such a performance makes it more likely that the Lions will see him again on this tour.

The tourists’ last chance came with an attacking lineout in the final minute. The ball was overthrown and the game was lost.

The Blues are the lowest-ranked of the New Zealand Super Rugby sides this season, sixth in their conference, although that is a reflection of the strength of the Kiwi sides. It means that every game is going to be tougher than this for the Lions.

The tourists will take encouragement from the set piece, the kicking game, the interior defence and the performances of Courtney Lawes, Rhys Webb and Halfpenny. The penalty count will disappoint them, but is easily fixed, however the vulnerability out wide is concerning, as is the lack of any cutting edge in the backs, although they will hope to add that in later games. Sexton’s form is also a concern, a good performance from Owen Farrell this Saturday would put him in pole position to start at 10 in the tests.

FIRST DEFEAT

Losing in only the second game made it the earliest loss by the Lions in the professional era. The first defeat has usually come midway through each tour since 1997, after the tourists have racked up some wins, providing a crucial reality check and added motivation to eliminate any complacency. In 1997, it was game five, 2001, game four, 2009, the first test – game seven, and 2013, game six on the eve of the first test.

The previous earliest defeat was the last time the Lions were in New Zealand, the ill-fated 2005 tour, in which they lost to the Maori in game three. Those Lions had the advantage of a weaker schedule than this year, playing provincial sides throughout. This year’s tourists have no such luxury, playing the five franchises. While they appear unlikely to play as badly as those tourists, any result which echoes 2005 does not bode well.