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


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.

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: 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: Maori All Blacks 10 – 32 British and Irish Lions

The Lions overpowered the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua

The Lions earned the biggest win of their tour of New Zealand so far by overpowering the Maori All Blacks on a very wet night at the Rotorua International Stadium.

The tourists’ victory was built on a dominant performance by the forwards, playing the conditions better than the home team and for the second Saturday running, a defence that smothered their opponents. But despite outscoring the Maori two tries to one, their inability to finish off scoring chances remains a significant concern with the first test against the All Blacks looming next week.

The Maori All Blacks are a tougher opponent than many test teams; they had not lost to international opposition since facing England in 2003, and beat the Lions on their last encounter 12 years ago, so a win in Rotorua is a significant achievement for the tourists.

The first half established the pattern for the game, the Lions dominated territory and possession, earning four first half penalties from Leigh Halfpenny, but were unable to break down the defence and put away try scoring opportunities. The most notable came from a break by Jonathan Davies, who had a good game, consistently making ground with the ball in hand. Dragged down just short of the line, the Lions could have gone wide, but instead their structure broke down, the ball found George Kruis at first receiver and they went for a series of unsuccessful blunt drives at the line instead.

It was remarkably similar to a later second half attack in which the Lions’ other centre, Ben Te’o, who also had another impressive outing as a ball carrier, made a clean 20 metre break deep into Maori territory, but lacked support and the chance went begging.

Instead it was the Maori who scored the only try of the first half. A wild offload by Taulupe Faletau in midfield led to a turnover. A speculative kick ahead by Nehe Milner-Skudder was fumbled on the wet surface by George North and Liam Messam was able to touch down the subsequent kick through and score.

It seemed ominous that the Maori had scored the game’s only try without creating any chances, meaning that the Lions only led by two points at half time. But in the second half there were no further defensive lapses and the only question became whether they could turn their own dominance into tries.

To a certain degree they succeeded. Consistent pressure up front led to a penalty try against the Maori for wheeling the scrum, and just three minutes later, Maro Itoje powered his way over the line at close range. It was a well-deserved try, the highlight of a fine all-round performance by Itoje which presses his claim for a place in the test side at the most competitive position.

It was one of several strong physical performances up front. Captain for the day Peter O’Mahony was an integral part of the effort in defence and at close quarters, hooker Jamie George had a strong all-round game, Faletau was ever-present and consistently made ground with the ball in hand, and although Sean O’Brien had a few handling errors he put in a strong performance in attack and defence for the second week in a row.

In the backs, Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton played the conditions well, with a measured tactical kicking performance, although Sexton’s inability to get much out of the backs inside the 22 was notable. Both centres, Te’o and Davies, made lots of ground with the ball in hand, both through clean breaks and simple power. It would be consistent with Warren Gatland’s history to want to pair two similarly big ball carriers and so not a surprise if this pair, or one of them and Robbie Henshaw started the first test next week, especially if Owen Farrell’s hamstring does not recover and Gatland is not tempted by the different dimension that Jonathan Joseph brings with his pace and sidestepping.

Out wide, there was little to judge the Lions by, North has been starved off the ball throughout the tour and has looked short of form since the start of the season, only coming to life late in the Six Nations when given some ball to run on to and Anthony Watson shared his fate today, with little to do. Halfpenny on the other hand, was not seen much in attack, but his kicking and defensive work were impressive and make him a likely starter next Saturday.

For the Maori, it was a tough evening. The back row of Akira Ioane, Elliot Dixon and Liam Messam made it hard for the tourists on the floor, and fly-half Damian McKenzie kicked well in the first half, but as the Lions’ pack turned the screw, he and fellow half-back Tawera Kerr-Barlow were starved of possession and could do little but go backwards.

That will please the Lions most. Again, they continued to improve, making the breaks that they failed to make last week, and turning pressure into points. But the test players will not play against the Chiefs on Tuesday, so the only remaining chance to learn how to turn attacking chances into tries will come on the training field.

The All Blacks were in ominous form in their first test match of the season on Friday, thumping Samoa 78-0 and showing remarkable cohesion in the first half. It is unlikely that their backs will be shut down as the Maori and Crusaders backs have been in the past two weeks. The Lions must find a way across the white line whenever they get the chance to score.

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.


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: 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.


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.