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.
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.