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: Chiefs 6 – 34 British and Irish Lions

The Lions turned in their best attacking performance of the tour so far, with a comfortable win over the disappointing Chiefs

Jack Nowell was the star as the Lions secured a morale-boosting midweek win over a lacklustre Chiefs team. The Exeter and England wing, who had struggled for form in New Zealand, scored two tries, one an opportunistic pick and drive, the other an incisive swerving run that capped off the tourists’ best move of the tour so far.

With most of the team selected by the Lions for this game unlikely to figure in Saturday’s first test, the players knew it would take something spectacular to force their way back into the reckoning and a few may have managed to do just that.

Elliot Daly showed his speed and all-round skill, and his versatility and long range kicking may yet earn him a spot on the bench, while second row Courtney Lawes picked up where he left off before last week’s head injury, reminding head coach Warren Gatland that perhaps none of the others at the squad’s most competitive position make quite the physical impact that he does. In the front row, Dan Cole was remarkably sprightly, particularly with a spectacular cover tackle of the fleet-footed Tim Nanai-Williams, making the point that Kyle Sinckler does not have the monopoly on athleticism at tight head.

Shorn of their All Blacks, including fly half Aaron Cruden, openside flanker Sam Cane and scrum half Tawera Kerr-Barlow, the Chiefs were some way short of the standard that took them to the Super Rugby semi-final last year and has them sixth in this year’s tournament, third among New Zealand teams.

After both sides exchanged penalties, it was the Lions who scored the only try of the first half, giving notice that they had found the cohesion, familiarity and timing that had been missing from their attacking play previously on this tour.

Slick hands from Dan Biggar found a clever arcing run by Liam Williams, reviving good service for the first time on tour and another dangerous runner who could yet figure in the test series. His pass put Nowell away down the right touchline, eventually tackled deep inside the 22. After the ball was recycled and went through a couple of phases, Biggar seized on half a gap to the left of the posts, dragged down just short of the line. Despite being well away from his right wing, Nowell popped up at the base of ruck to dive over, opportunistically.

Leading 6 – 13 at half time, the Lions gradually exerted pressure early in the second half. A maul from a five metre line out was pulled down by Chiefs flanker Mitchell Brown, and after Iain Henderson was held up over the line, referee Jerome Garces handed them the penalty try and an automatic seven points, as well as a yellow card for Brown.

From then on there was no turning back. The Chiefs could not score a second half point, capping another impressive defensive performance from the tourists, and just before the hour, Nowell’s second was a gem.

The home team created a scoring opportunity with an attacking line out 10 metres from the Lions’ line, but confusion reigned before the throw, which missed its target. Justin Tipuric seized on the loose ball, which went through the hands of the backline, allowing Williams to draw defenders and release Daly, whose pace took him across halfway. Two well-judged offloads proved the tourists’ improved commitment to keeping the ball alive and after Jared Payne was dragged down, Lawes played scrum half, allowing Biggar to release the ball to the right, where it found Nowell outside the 22, from where he outpaced one man on the outside, before stepping inside the cover and diving over to cap off an almost length of the field effort.

Five minutes later, he turned provider, gathering a misjudged Chiefs chip and finding Williams, who hit a wonderful angle at pace, swerving and stepping before finding Payne on his shoulder to score under the posts. With 16 minutes to go, Biggar’s conversion was the last score of the match, but the damage was done and there was little threat from the Chiefs.

The replacements bench was unusually under-used for a modern professional game and little was seen of the controversial recent additions to the squad, with only Scottish prop Allan Dell and Welsh scrum half Gareth Davies seeing any playing time, alongside original tourists Alun Wyn Jones and Tommy Seymour. Expect the late arrivals to play more of a role next Tuesday in the final midweek game, against the Highlanders.

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.

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.