Lions improve but not enough to beat lowest ranked New Zealand Super 15 side.
While there was a marked improvement in the performance, there will be no consolation in the result as the Lions continue to struggle with ball in hand and are sorely lacking a creative spark.
Their discipline was poor with silly penalties and being switched off for the final 30 seconds of the first half also proved costly when Sonny Bill Williams was quickest to react when a penalty attempt rebounded off the post.
The Lions played reasonably well for stretches, especially in the first half, yet they were found wanting when it mattered most at the death, stung by a late wonder try from Ihaia West.
Despite this, one last golden opportunity to steal what would have been an undeserved win presented itself. Rory Best’s lineout sailed haplessly over the jumpers and the chance evaporated.
Whether it was the lifters or the hooker that was at fault is irrelevant, it was a costly mistake.
Warren Gatland’s men now head to Christchurch on Thursday, beaten, and they will have to gather themselves quickly if they are not to be bowed by the week’s end.
What was supposed to be a mission to restore credibility and silence critics fell way short of the mark. The idea that there is room for improvement, that things will get better etc and that all focus is on the Test Series will only get you so far.
It’s hardly like losing to New Zealand’s Super 15 sides is going to build confidence heading into three games with the All Blacks.
Ken Owens was a real positive for the Lions. His post match thoughts below. Credit Sky Sports.
Today's Lions captain Ken Owens says ill-discipline and unforced errors let the side down today. More on SS1 now. https://t.co/jWRIn6FCMK
— Sky Sports Rugby (@SkySportsRugby) June 7, 2017
The big characters in the Lions dressing room need to step to the fore, need to give this team a direction and some belief. While there was no denying that the tourists were on top in the scrum and lineout, that last blemish notwithstanding, their attack was blunt.
The Blues had been boosted by a fortuitous score from Sonny Bill Williams on the stroke of half-time and their superior tempo continued into the second half.
Hooker Ken Owens was excellent, Maro Itoje was a huge presence in the lineout and round the park while CJ Stander was his industrious self, as was Justin Tipuric.
The Lions had just managed to claw their way back into the lead through two penalties from Leigh Halfpenny when the Blues struck in the 73rd minute. It had appeared an innocuous middle-of-the-field situation.
Two fantastic off-loads, first from Bristol-bound No 8 Steven Luatua and then Sonny Bill Williams cut the Lions defence wide open. Lurking in the shadows was Ihaia West.
West’s run was timed perfectly, his line ran in anticipation of the Williams’ offload which inevitably was on the money. Swerve, step and an injection of pace and he was under the posts of the game winning score.
Despite a positive opening, the Lions defence were caught narrow early on with Jack Nowell getting sucked in. Fly-half Stephen Perofeta spun the ball wide to find Reiko Ioane who finished clinically.
Ulster’s Jared Payne came close to a try but crucial his trailing let hit the whitewash before grounding the ball. The tourists would have their moment minutes later when turning down a certain three points for a lineout.
They were repelled on the initial lineout maul but managed to reset and go again. This time Munster’s CJ Stander was at the tail of the maul to crash over for the try.
Dan Biggar’s ill advised attempted to run back a Blues clearance kick was rewarded with being upended unceremoniously resulting in a HIA. Ioane pounced on the loose ball and ran it back for a try only for referee Pascal Gauzere to rule out the try after Blues prop Ofa Tuungafasi was offside when dislodging the ball from Dan Biggar’s grasp.
There was plenty of doubt surrounding Sonny Bill Williams try at the end of the first half too. Perofeta’s kick came back off the post, and with Jack Nowell and TJ Faiane both going for the ball, Gauzere ruled the Enlgishman knocked it back over the line.
Williams was alert and first to the ball, a cheap try to concede and a 12-10 half time lead for the Auckland Blues following Perofeta’s conversion.
Williams was alert on the follow-up, as well as long in the reach, and got the verdict on the touchdown, Perofeta’s conversion sending his side into the interval with a 12-10 lead.
Liam Williams was introduced for the injured Jared Payne but he couldn’t have had a worse start, twice timing his jump into the aerial take against Matt Duffie and getting it wrong. The first time was especially galling as the Lions had a penalty advantage. Williams was sent to the bin and rightly so.
Halfpenny landed a penalty in the 65th minute to close the gap to two points. The scrum then flexed its collective muscle forcing another penalty which Halfpenny again slotted to take a 16-15 lead with 70 minutes on the clock.
It was not to last. Ihaia West made sure of that.