Match report: Highlanders 23 – 22 British and Irish Lions

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

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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.

Match report: Crusaders 3 – 12 British and Irish Lions

A fine defensive performance revitalised the Lions against the best team in Super Rugby

Four penalties from Owen Farrell and a fine defensive performance secured a much-needed win for the British and Irish Lions over the Crusaders, easing the pressure on the tourists after Wednesday’s loss to the Blues.

The Lions improved for the second game in a row, making far less mistakes, particularly in defence, and had much better discipline, giving away only seven penalities, compared to 13 against the Blues.

The Lions’ coaching staff have clearly been adding layers to their plan game-by-game. Against the Blues, they added a set piece and improved carrying, and the performance against the Crusaders was typified by improved defence and more ambiltiion in attack. They dominated territory and possession and had more runs and more clean breaks than the hosts.

However, that ambition was not joined by execution. There was a lack of understanding in attacking situations that was inevitable for players, many making their first start of the tour, who are still getting to know each other.

That understanding will come with time, the question is whether the Lions have enough of it before the first test, in two weeks’ time.

The Crusaders have scored the second-most tries in the 2017 Super Rugby Season (74), it was the first time in 38 games they had been held tryless and only the second time in their history that they had been kept to three points or less, most recently in 2009, so to shut them down so comprehensively was a fine achievement for the players and defensive coach Andy Farrell.

The hosts looked dangerous in the first half, but unlike the Blues in midweek, were unable to create chances. Their pack, led by captain Sam Whitelock, caused plenty of problems, but that they were unusually quiet out wide, including All Black Israel Dagg, was testament to the tourists’ defence.

The whole Lions pack played well and all were worthy of singling out, but Mako Vunipola brought an extra dimension to the front row with his carrying and Sean O’Brien covered a lot of ground in attack and defence, raising an interesting conundrum as to which way round he and Sam Warburton might combine in a test back row.

In the backs, it was more a case of mixed performances. Good passages of play were rounded off by missed chances, typified early on when Jonathan Davies overran a pass from Farrell – probably neither’s fault, but emblematic of the lack of understanding.

Ben Te’o continued to be the most effective ball carrier on tour so far, consistently getting across the gain line, but his poor handling prevented his team from benefitting from those positions, while Liam Williams and Anthony Watson, on at full back for a possibly concussed Stuart Hogg, received some wayward passes, which they struggled admirably to turn into gains.

There was also some poor decision making. Farrell’s bad decision to throw a long miss pass on the Crusaders’ goal line in the second half squandered a great attacking position, while Hogg’s decision not to pass in the first half also robbed the Lions of an opportunity.

When Davies went off, also for a suspected concussion, Jonathan Sexton came on and looked much better in combination with Farrell than he had previously on the tour. Given the lack of early form among the centres, that may push Gatland towards selecting both for the tests, unless someone else makes a strong case in the next two games.

The Lions move on to the Highlanders in Dunedin on Tuesday, when many of the players who lost to the Blues will have a chance to put that defeat behind them. The fixture against the New Zealand Maori that looms next Saturday will be a test match in all but name – the Maori rarely lose to international opposition. Expect the Lions side that plays that match to strongly resemble the line- up for the first test the week after.

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.

Match report: Provincial Barbarians 7 – 13 British and Irish Lions

The Lions were made to work hard for the first victory of their tour of New Zealand

The British and Irish Lions won the opening game of their tour of New Zealand, but it was an otherwise unimpressive performance by the tourists, as they struggled to beat a Provincial Barbarians team made up of amateurs and semi-professionals.

The Barbarians showed just how tough a tour of New Zealand can be, as a group of players unable to crack the Super Rugby franchises showed enough grit and skill to be the equal of internationals for the better part of an hour.

However, in a scrappy game that offered little entertainment, both sides looked like what they were – scratch teams that had never played or trained together before this week, which accounted for disorganisation in defence and at set pieces, but not for the missed tackles and dropped balls.

There was an inauspicious start for the tourists, who made a mess of catching the kick-off, letting winger Sevu Reece snatch the ball and make ground, setting up several minutes of Barbarians pressure.

The Lions were unable to secure much possession during the opening ten minutes, getting the ball only long enough for Jonny Sexton to miss a straightforward penalty kick that heralded a bad day for the fly-half.

Instead, they were forced to absorb more pressure until the 17th minute when Sexton made good with a second attempt, to take a 0-3 lead.

Rather than settling the tourists’ nerves, the score seemed to motivate the Barbarians, most of whom were playing in the biggest match of their careers.

Only a wonderful tackle by Taulupe Faletau, running 20 metres to drag Inga Fina down and roll him over to stop the ball being grounded, stopped what looked like a certain score after Luteru Laulala created space for himself and broke deep into the Lions’ 22.

It typified a superb all-round performance by Faletau, which will reassure the Lions, after the blow of losing his cousin, and perhaps the form number eight in world rugby, Billy Vunipola, through injury a week before the tour.

Faletau’s tackle only delayed what had been coming – a close range try from Barbarians captain, hooker Sam Anderson-Heather, with the conversion kicked by impressive fly-half Bryn Gatland, the son of Lions coach Warren.

The score brought the Lions to life and twice before half time they were held up over the line. First, Ben Te’o, who ran good lines throughout the game, set up Stuart Hogg, and second, a close range surge from Faletau had the same result.

The Lions’ inability to finish their chances made for a tense half time, but nerves were eased by an early second half penalty from Greg Laidlaw, taking over the kicking after Sexton appeared to be shaken by a tackle. It summed up the fly-half’s bad day and Owen Farrell, who replaced him soon afterwards, exerted greater control on the game.

The fresh legs led to a breakthrough minutes later. Farrell fed Anthony Watson, who looked lively on the limited occasions the ball came to his right wing, and he bustled past a couple of tackles to score in the corner.

Farrell added the conversion from near the touchline. With a six-point lead and 25 minutes to go, the stage seemed set for the Lions to have a strong finish, but instead the game rather fizzled out.

Farrell hit the post with a relatively simple penalty effort, the handling mistakes continued from both sides and neither created much in the way of clear-cut chances. The Barbarians’ gritty and effective performance continued to put pressure on the Lions line, but their own unfamiliarity showed and they did not create anything more threatening than some pick and drives.

The first game of a tour is often a tough proposition only a few days after stepping off the plane, but that does not entirely account for the handling errors and missed tackles, especially as the Barbarians were also a scratch side, albeit not a jet-lagged one.

The provincial side did themselves proud, holding their own up front and looking lively out wide. Many of these players will break into Super Rugby in the near future, while others will return to their day jobs, having shown the incredible depth of New Zealand rugby.

STRANGE BEGINNINGS

The opening fixtures of Lions tours in the professional era have been a mixed bag. As in 2009, a composite team, a throwback to the amateur past, has proved a tougher opponent than the established teams the Lions have faced on other tours.

Then, a ‘Royal XV’ of non-Super Rugby players gave the Lions a scare with a typically competitive South African performance, while the Lions struggled to get going, before securing a hard-fought 37-25 win.

Other opening games have been regulation tour matches against professional opponents. In 2013, the Lions swept aside the Western Force, one of Australia’s five Super Rugby teams, 59-8, after stopping in Hong Kong to cruise past a group Barbarians players tired from a long season and too much partying.

In 2001, the Lions won a largely pointless game 116-10 against an outclassed group of amateur players from Western Australia, which did not then have a professional franchise.

On the 1997 tour, the first of the professional era, the Lions played Eastern Province, a traditionally weaker domestic side, and won comfortably.

Today’s result also echoed the opener of the last tour of New Zealand 12 years ago (discounting the hard-fought 25-25 draw in a pre-tour test match against Argentina), against Bay of Plenty, one of the smaller provincial teams, who gave the Lions a tougher game than expected before eventually winning 34-20.

The Lions travel to Auckland to play the Blues on Wednesday and an almost entirely different line-up will have to improve significantly on today’s performance if they are to avoid the first defeat of the tour.

Gatland needs to have an idea of his test team by the fifth game, against the Maori on 17 June, and be certain of it afterwards, because whoever plays in the following midweek game, against the Chiefs, will not feature against New Zealand.

Aside from Faletau and Te’o, English prop Kyle Sinckler, was also impressive, looking dynamic around the field, and could make himself a star on this tour.

Most players will only get two games to prove their worth, so those who underperformed against the Barbarians, the weakest opposition on the tour, may come to rue their performances.

Lions selections should seize the day

A British and Irish Lions squad is about the present, not the past or the future.

After months of debate and over-hype, the 2017 British and Irish Lions squad will be announced this Wednesday (19 April). Selection poses a unique challenge because a Lions squad is a snapshot of a moment in time. It is not about who has played well in the past, or may play well in the future. Not about who has had, or will have the best career. It is about who is in form right now.

The Lions will only have five games together before Warren Gatland has to pick his team for the first test, so most players will only get two games to prove themselves, leaving no room for those who need to play their way back into form or fitness.

Unlike regular international rugby, where coaches develop players for the future, a Lions squad has no future. Win now or win never.

Some of the best selections in modern Lions history recognised that form is everything. John Bentley had not played for England in nine years when he was a surprise selection in 1997, having only returned from rugby league at the start of the season with second division Newcastle. But the Falcons were early pioneers of professionalism and he was in form for a promotion-winning side. Ian McGeechan valued the professionalism of ex-rugby league players, in rugby union’s first season after amateurism. Bentley was a star of the tour on and off the pitch, his physical style well-suited to the South African game and his big personality suited to the spotlight.

After the tour, already in his 30s, he found his international opportunities limited, winning only two more caps for England as Clive Woodward favoured younger players. There can be few, if any, who have only gained four caps for their country, yet two for the Lions, let alone in a winning series, but Bentley was the right man in the right place at the right time.

Four years later, another rugby league man, Jason Robinson made the squad in 2001 despite not having played a full season of rugby union or started an international for England, because of his electric performances and rewarded the Lions with a brilliant and crucial try in the first test.

On the same tour, Rob Henderson hit form at the right time to capitalise on injuries and loss of form for bigger-names and was one of the best Lions in the narrow defeat to Australia. Henderson would end his career with only 29 Irish caps, but at that moment he was the man in form, and other recent tourists such as Jeremy Davidson, Geoff Parling, Riki Flutey and Ugo Monye have played well for the Lions despite not having extensive international careers.

A warning from history came from the disastrous 2005 tour, for which Clive Woodward relied heavily on his 2003 world cup-winning England team, rather than the in-form, grand slam-winning Welsh, and the defeat was comprehensive.

For 2017, this counts against Lions veterans such as Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Jamie Roberts, stalwarts of the last two tours, but struggling to hold on to their national team places this season. George North, before his return to form late in the Six Nations, might have been in the same boat.

It might also count against George Kruis, hotly tipped to go to New Zealand for his lineout expertise, and a seemingly guaranteed selection last year. But Kruis has played little rugby in 2017, none of it international. At one of the most competitive positions, Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, the Gray brothers and Ireland’s locks all have form and fitness, although early reports suggest that Gatland does not agree. Kruis may have played better than them last season and may do again next season, but the Lions are at their best when they are entirely men of the moment.

PROBLEMS AT 12

Possibly the Lions’ weakest position is inside centre. Reigning Six Nations champions England play an out-of-position Owen Farrell there, Wales have struggled to move on from Roberts, and while Robbie Henshaw and Alex Dunbar have done good work for Ireland and Scotland, neither has been exceptional.

England use Farrell to take pressure off George Ford and provide world-class kicking, but with Johnny Sexton, the Lions will have less need of that. Given how the Irishman takes risks with his own health by bringing the ball to the line, a second receiver might be useful, but Farrell might make as much sense covering Sexton from the bench, while a more physical ball carrier plays and helps get the team across the gainline.

That would fit with Gatland’s physical ‘Warrenball’ tactics, but whether he will be more expansive with the Lions than with Wales, with more players available to him, remains to be seen. If Farrell plays centre, it would free up enough game time for a third fly-half in the squad for the first time since 2005. If not, then Stuart Hogg might reprise his role as the third fly-half from Australia four years ago. Gatland’s decision at 12 should shine a light on his tactics for the series.