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

- From Chris Foy IN CHRISTCHUR­CH

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.

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 ??  ?? STATE­MENT WIN: Lions coach Gat­land
STATE­MENT WIN: Lions coach Gat­land
 ??  ?? ON TOUR WITH THE LIONS 2017
ON TOUR WITH THE LIONS 2017

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