Lions turn in best performance to date on tour to give hope for test series.
Warren Gatland’s charges needed a boost and the the manner of Saturday’s victory was the clearest indication yet that the Lions just might be capable of causing problems for the All Blacks in the Test series.
Saturday’s performance while not very polished was ruthlessly efficient in it’s bludgeoning brutality to subdue the usually effervescent Maoris.
It was the Lions fans who were erupting with joy at the final whistle, a real tourist experience. They were all too aware that this was a watershed moment, not just for individuals but for the morale of the tour seven days from the first Test.
While still off the pace in the attacking sense – the Lions still struggling to turn clean line breaks into tries – their pack was simply outstanding. Maro Itoje put in a colossal shift, so too Taulupe Faletau while Peter O’Mahony led from the front and looked at ease in the captaincy role.
The scrum has been the Lions most consistent and dependable weapon on tour and again today it was solid yielding a penalty try and causing the Maoris umpteen problems. Half-backs Murray and Sexton combined well and the kicking game kept the Maoris pinned back and forced to play from deep.
It was the manner of the win that was most satisfying, the Maoris had not just been defeated, they were suffocated. True, the conditions favoured the Lions but they still had to play them and they did so perfectly.
Like last Saturday’s win over the Crusaders, this too was forged up front, from forward power and bruising defence. The defensive line speed was exceptional and the tackling prevented the Maoris from offloading in the tackle and from recycling quickly.
Johnny Sexton had his best game to date on the tour while the metronomic Leigh Halfpenny was imperious off the tee amassing 20 points on the afternoon.
The midweek loss the the Highlanders had the Lions searching for answers. For the second time on tour, the Lions had lost a game from an eminently winnable position.
Their game management has been seriously called into question and their lack of cutting edge too has been identified as a concern. With Murray and Sexton finally staring to click and Farrell recovering from injury, Gatland will have a welcome selection dilemma on his hands.
The combination of Sexton and Jonathan Davies was working well while Ben Te’o was immense. Sexton controlled the Lions from ten, directing operations and putting those outside him in space.
The most concerning worry for the Lions is the failure to convert line breaks into seven pointers. Several times again today, breaks from Jonathan Davies and Ben Te’o were not finished off.
If the Lions are to stand any chance of an upset in the Test series, this must be rectified. The All Blacks take full advantage of the slightest chances which they showed mercilessly during their shredding of Samoa on Friday evening.
Chances will be at a premium at Eden Park next Saturday so every opportunity must be taken. While the two try haul against the Maoris was satisfactory, both came from short range courtesy of a penalty try and a pick and go from Itoge.
Discipline has been a constant work-on with today again being another day of concern. All the Maori points in the first half came from mistakes, a converted try and two penalties, Maro Itoje at fault for both penalty indiscretions.
A better team would have punished the Lions and the All Blacks certainly will.
What the Lions did show today is that when they play to their strengths and capabilities, they can be a match for good sides. If they are to put pressure on the All Blacks, they must force Steve Hansen’s side to play a game they don’t want to play.
The Lions closed out the game. This was an emphatic win. It may not have had the freewheeling brilliance of the All Blacks victory on Friday but it was just as notable. This Test series is very much alive.