The Scottish Mail on Sunday
LIFT-OFF AT LAST
Gatland’s men show All Blacks they won’t be pushovers on a night when tour came to life
LIFT-OFF for the Lions. Warren Gatland’s team claimed the prized scalp of the Super Rugby leaders with a defensive masterclass which has reignited their whole campaign.
With backs to the wall in the aftermath of a midweek defeat against the Blues in Auckland, this victory halted the tide of Kiwi derision that had threatened to engulf them.
Instead of casting these British and Irish visitors as hapless cannon fodder for the All Blacks, the host nation may be forced to revise their dismissive attitude, after seeing their top provincial side — containing eight Test players — become victims of a remarkable lock-out.
No tries for the Crusaders and only three points. At home. To put that in context, Scott Robertson’s side have averaged 37 points per game this season, sweeping to 14 consecutive victories.
They were on a roll but ran into a big red wall. No wonder Andy Farrell looked buoyant after the final whistle. He was not the only one. Gatland had the satisfied air of a man who had made a mockery of so many vitriolic critics.
The Lions head coach had evidently relished the chance to foster a siege mentality in the run-up to this game and he knows what this result will mean for confidence two weeks before the series opener against the world champions.
It was a statement victory, if not a statement of attacking performance. There were no tries for the Lions either but enough openings to score four or five. With more time together, they believe final passes will begin to stick and decision-making in the ‘red zone’ will improve.
Robertson suggested the Lions had been a ‘desperate’ team going into this match, and he had a point. They needed this win and the morale boost as the tour moves on; further south to Dun- edin for a showdown with the Highlanders on Tuesday.
Four penalties by Owen Farrell were enough to settle an abrasive contest in favour of the visitors but what made all the difference was their collective ability to shut down a team full of predatory finishers.
The Crusaders, with so many All Blacks up front, were able to go toe-to-toe with the Lions pack and claim some scrum success but the tourists’ forwards held sway at the breakdown and in the lineout.
There were times, especially in the second half, when the Lions seemed to masquerade as Saracens, to telling effect. Their swarming, aggressive defence denied the hosts’ dangerous No 10, Richie Mo’unga, and his outside backs any space to weave their magic.
Conor Murray turned the screw by unleashing an aerial onslaught which drew effusive acclaim from Robertson, who described the Ireland scrum-half and his kicking game as ‘world-class’.
The same could be said of Farrell. He almost conjured a try in the first minute when he sent Jonathan Davies storming clear in the 22 — and the England fly-half was highly influential in attack and defence. It can be stated now with conviction that the Lions will go into the first Test on June 24 with a MurrayFarrell half-back partnership.
The rest of the back-line equation is less clear-cut. This win came at some cost, as Stuart Hogg and Davies suffered head injuries which enforced their removal.
Neither will be available for the Highlanders game — and their Test prospects have been undermined by being denied a full audition here. In contrast, Ben Te’o delivered another compelling display of marauding midfield carrying and collisions. He is forcing himself into prime Test contention.
Especially intriguing was the sight of Farrell and Johnny Sexton operating in tandem after Davies was withdrawn. The Irish playmaker appeared horribly short of confidence in the opening fixture in Whangarei but here were signs of a revival. When he combined with Farrell to spark a late attack, it made the notion of them forming a 10-12 alliance more plausible.
The back three remains an area of uncertainty, in terms of Test selection. Anthony Watson showcased his counter-attacking class after replacing the unlucky Hogg but Gatland was right to question why he did not back his pace and footwork by taking on Israel Dagg after scorching into space midway through the second half.
The Bath flyer is predominantly regarded as a wing candidate — as he is by England — but the head coach conceded he could be considered for the No 15 shirt. Picking him there would represent a daring commitment to the ‘X-factor’ rugby the Lions have made their stated aim. Up front there are so many options. A powerful shift by Ireland flanker Sean O’Brien will turn the heat on Sam Warburton. The tour captain needs to regain full fitness and hit his stride or O’Brien could be a genuine threat to his pre-eminence at openside.
At lock, captain-for-the-night Alun Wyn Jones and second row partner George Kruis enhanced their Test cases — just as Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje had done in midweek. Mako Vunipola’s work-rate was a wonder to behold, with and without the ball, and Tadhg Furlong further illustrated his monstrous ball-carrying capability.
The Lions led from the 13th minute, taking a grip on the best domestic team in New Zealand, and would not let go. Home fans were streaming for the exits 10 minutes from the end, while large groups of Lions supporters were in good voice. It felt like a night when the tour came to life.
The Lions have bared their teeth and the soundtrack of Kiwi catcalls has quietened down. Perhaps home rule is not a foregone conclusion.