Tourists show their true colours with skill and pace
Warren Gatland’s men lost the game but won a lot of admirers at Eden Park.
OPINION: So where on earth has Warren Gatland been hiding this Lions’ side?
You know the team I’m talking about. The one that didn’t so much win the Saturday games, as bore their opposition into submission.
The players who wore the red jerseys at Eden Park were there to play the sort of rugby that harked back to the misty past, right back to 1959, when Kiwi kids worshipped runners like Lions wings Tony O’Reilly and Peter Jackson. Look them up, unlike the wings in the feted ‘71 Lions they scored tries in test matches.
Of course the Lions didn’t win. In fact they got a hiding. When you live by the scoreboard, and the Lions have been at pains to point out they do, they must have felt sick to the stomach at what they saw last night.
They have good players, but they don’t have a genius player, like Beauden Barrett, and while Conor Murray is a terrific halfback, he doesn’t clear the ball as quickly or as cleanly as Aaron Smith does.
But what they did do was make this series suddenly look potentially exciting. Because, now they know for a fact they aren’t strong enough in the forwards to batter their way to victory, they must surely seize on the promise their backs showed to have any chance of a test win, or even to keep the score close, next weekend.
To revert to type will consign them to history as being as mediocre as the dismal outfit who failed so badly in 2005.
Before this Eden Park test the game last night wasn’t exactly seen as light versus dark, or good versus evil, but it did promise to genuinely expose the difference between the styles of rugby played in Britain and in New Zealand.
On this tour it had been seen as a gulf, between adventure and stolid grind, that moved even a former Lion to text legendary All Black Murray Mexted this week, and say that gulf has never been so wide.
So where have the Lions been hiding the skills and daring that almost yielded a try to Elliot Daley in the first few minutes, and a brilliant, almost length of the field try for Sean O’Brien in the 35th?
It had seemed, watching the last two Saturday games, that in these Lions the attacking gene had been extinguished. It turned out, for the high speed, daring moments from when Liam Williams broke inside his own 22 until, four passes later, O’Brien was plunging over for five points, it was only under heavy disguise.
Was this the Lions team wryly described by a British radio commentator during the day as ‘‘very good from one to 10’’, but not so flash in the higher numbers?
Players like Daley and Anthony Watson were suddenly dodging, darting, and leaving All Blacks grasping at air.
You would have thought before kick-off, the 2017 Lions would tap a penalty from which they might get an easy three points at about the same time Donald Trump stops using hair spray, and the RNZAF uses pigs for flying displays at air shows.
And then, four minutes into the second half, that’s exactly what they did. Thankfully for Kiwi fans the All Blacks weren’t so stunned they couldn’t defend the maul, but the decision in itself was a warning the Lions were playing from a brand new playbook.
Seeing the ball moved at speed by the men in red was a shock, although at other times they reverted to type, forwards like Alun Wyn Jones and Mako Vunipola almost perfectly illustrating the meaning of the word ‘‘lumbering.’’
On the other hand the try Codie Taylor scored in the 17th minute was a perfect example of the sort of rugby the current All Blacks, when on song, can seemingly summon at will.
The All Blacks had a gift three points, when referee Jaco Peyper awarded them a penalty inside the Lions’ 22.
But Aaron Smith tapped the ball, and the All Blacks ran it until a dumbfounded Lions’ defence saw a hooker, Taylor, pluck the ball almost off the top of his boots and score the try.
Ultimately the All Blacks showed why they’re in a small group of one on top of the world.
When the game counted they had the measure of the Lions in almost every department.
Good enough at scrum time to do a demolition job that would ultimately lead to one of two terrific tries for the hugely promising Rieko Ioane, at least as good in the dark arts of the breakdown as the Lions, and shrewd enough at the lineout to steal a Lions’ throw on the five metre line in the last 10 minutes.
The Lions will lose this series 3-0, but they have the opportunity to be gallant, even thrilling, losers.
All Blacks hooker Codie Taylor dives over for the first try of the test last night.