Swashbuckling Blues upset misfiring Lions

A display of vim, vigour, belief and determination has seen the Blues pile on the agony for the British & Irish Lions with a 22-16 win at a wet and windy Eden Park. The tourists were much improved from the lacklustre effort put out against the NZ Provincial Barbarians a few days earlier, but still looked like a side trying to lock down combinations, particularly in attack.

Their ability to build phases and get into good positions was unquestionable, but that spark of creation once they got there was all too often missing. Conversely, the Blues seemed capable of lighting the touch paper every time they got front-foot ball, and with the attacking weapons at their disposal, Rieko Ioane a standout, they outscored their opponents by three tries to one.

Ioane crossed once and had three more five-pointers ruled out by the TMO on the night, proving to be a constant thorn in the Lions side. On this form, he could well go on to be a further irritant for his country in the three-test series.

It was a confident start by the Lions, perhaps with the assertions of their coach that they are here to play ringing in their ears. 16 well-executed phases from the kick-off got them within a few metres of the Blues line, before James Haskell was pinged for a dangerous tackle on Sonny Bill Williams as the star centre went for a turnover.

Another strip from Williams cruelled the Lions’ next possession and helped get the home side on the front foot, and they didn’t take long to throw down the gauntlet. A crossfield kick from flyhalf Stephen Perofeta almost put winger Matt Duffie away, but for a recovering tackle from Leigh Halfpenny. But when the ball came back infield, neat hands from prop Charlie Faumuina gave Perofeta the chance to whip a looping wide ball to the opposite flank for Rieko Ioane to carve a path around the tourists rush defence and dive home.

Rieko Ioane scores_Blues v Lions_2017

Still only 20-years-old, Rieko Ioane is one of the hottest young talents in world rugby

Rookie flyhalf Perofeta couldn’t add the extras, and the tourists thought they’d hit straight back when they went another 10 phases from the restart and created an overlap on the left wing for Jared Payne to slide into the corner. But the TMO was correctly called upon as replays showed a terrific last-ditch tackle from the ubiquitous Perofeta had dragged the Irishman’s trailing leg into touch before he grounded.

Having been roundly booed by the home crowd in Whangarei last Saturday for taking penalty shots at goal instead of chancing their arm for greater rewards, there was universal delight when Dan Biggar kicked to touch in the 15th minute with a straightforward 3pts on the table.

That decision paid immediate dividends when, having gone close from their first lineout maul, the Lions forwards went again off another penalty and CJ Stander was driven over. Up stepped Leigh Halfpenny for the conversion and the tourists had the lead at 7-5.

The Welsh fullback didn’t pass up the opportunity to add another 3pts four minutes later when his forwards earned a scrum penalty from right in front. That had the Lions up 10-5 and seemingly in control. Bossing the territory and possession stats, and enjoying the bigger slice of the pie at set-piece time, they appeared to have settled into the Eden Park cauldron and were ready to do some serious business.

But anyone who has watched the Blues in Super Rugby this season will affirm the fact that they are a team that can score from anywhere, and pose a constant threat as a result. And when Rieko Ioane scooped up a loose ball on halfway after a titanic hit from prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi, and strode half the field for his second, it appeared as though the tourists had been caught napping once again. But the TMO was in the Lions corner on this occasion, again correctly confirming that Tu’ungafasi was in an offside position when he made the tackle.

The heavens opened in Auckland in the shadows of half-time, but the Blues capabilities with ball in hand didn’t suffer in the ensuing deluge. And when the hardworking Steven Luatua – probably his side’s best in the opening stanza – was felled by a high shot from Stander, they had a chance to have the last say before oranges. But they ended up with far more than they could have hoped for.

Perofeta’s kick cannoned back of a post, straight into the outstretched arms of a posse of players. But when the ball was palmed backwards in goal – replays confirming off a Lions hand – it was Sonny Bill Williams who reacted the quickest to touch down and gift Perofeta a simple conversion with which to take the home side to the sheds with a 12-10 lead.

No doubt buoyed by that late score, the Blues returned with renewed purpose in attack after the break, and soon had the Lions on the backfoot defending their line. A wall of blue jerseys hammered away for an opening until they found the space out wide to put Rieko Ioane in again for his second of the night. But again, the busiest man in the stadium was the TMO, whose replays clearly showed the Blues destroyer’s foot was in touch before he dotted down thanks to the attentions of Jack Nowell.

The home side continued to ask all the questions as the tourists struggled to regain any rhythm or flow in their play. And when a further ruck infringement was punished by the boot of Ihaia West – on for the impressive Perofeta – the Lions were staring down the barrel at 15-10.

Their task wasn’t helped by a yellow card for Liam Williams, whose two contributions having come on for Jared Payne, were two dangerous tackles in the air on the same player, Matt Duffie. Both incidents were worthy of penalties only, but given the repetition involved, referee Pascal Gaüzère had no choice but to send Williams to the sideline to reflect on his recklessness.

Sniffing blood in the water, the Blues went in for the kill with the man advantage. Shifting it just two passes wide off a scrum, the ball found the hands of Rieko Ioane, who somehow powered his way past four Lions defenders to stretch for the line, only for play to be called back for a forward pass. This kid is a bit special.

Keen to run down the clock and get back to their full quota, the Lions set about building patient phases to move upfield and look for a penalty. It wasn’t pretty but it worked, Leigh Halfpenny making it 15-13 with a quarter of an hour left on the clock. And when a revamped Lions pack earned a scrum penalty on the Blues 10 metre line, it was the sharpshooting Welshman who fired his side back into a one-point lead.

Ten to go then, and the Lions were back in pole position with the task of seeing the game out. But fortune favours the brave, and an inability to create try-scoring chances, coupled with a persistence in meaningless kicks came back to haunt them in spectacular fashion when the Blues struck the decisive hammer blow.

Ihaia West scores_Blues v Lions_2017

Ihaia West signals to the Blues fans after running in a sensational match-winning try

A midfield bomb from Jonathan Sexton, so innocuous since he replaced Dan Biggar before half-time that this is his first mention, merely gifted possession back to the home side, and didn’t they make the most of it. Steven Luatua carried back over halfway and popped up a lovely reverse pass for a charging Sonny Bill Williams. Taking it into traffic, the centre found his own trademark offload for Ihaia West, who hit the ball at such a searing pace that he left the red wall trailing, skipped past Liam Williams and stepped Halfpenny to go under the posts.

Sensational stuff.

West’s conversion left the Lions needing a converted try of their own to win it, not something they had looked much like achieving at all in the second half. But when they did get their chances, two of them, it was an inability to execute under pressure that cost them, a failing that would not have gone unnoticed by Steve Hansen and co.

Pick and driving their way up the middle, they worked themselves through ten phases to within six or seven metres of the Blues line, only for replacement prop Joe Marler to cruel their progress by playing the ball again after being held in the tackle.

And with just 30 seconds left on the clock, a penalty gave the Lions a lineout throw 10 metres out, and a chance to utilise their driving maul to save the day. But hooker Rory Best’s Achilles heel came back to bite him, an overthrow missing Maro Itoje’s leap and landing in grateful Blues hands, and when the ball was belted into touch to signal a famous victory, the Lions were left ruing what might have been.

Two games in to this tour and eyebrows are beginning to furrow. A narrow win over a select band of club players, followed by defeat to a team that currently sit bottom of the New Zealand conference in the 2017 Super Rugby competition, does not augur well for the clashes to come against the unbeaten Crusaders and reigning champions, the Hurricanes, in particular. Two tries in 160 minutes of football is another fact that will not be sending shivers down any All Black spines.

History will mark the Blues down as the first New Zealand Super Rugby team to beat the Lions. Unless Warren Gatland can find the right formula, and fast, they will not be out on their own for long.

Blues 22 (Rieko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams, Ihaia West tries; Stephen Perofeta con, Ihaia West con, pen) defeated British & Irish Lions 16 (CJ Stander try; Leigh Halfpenny con, 3 pens) HT 12-10 Crowd: 40,639

*********************

Lions Watch – Five in Focus:

There wasn’t much to crow about for the Lions in this potentially damaging defeat. But given that the matchday 23 saw 14 changes from the side that narrowly beat the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in the opening match of the tour, plenty of fresh faces had the chance to stake their claim for a place in the all-important opening test against the All Blacks in two weeks time. But did anyone step up to the plate…

1 – Making his Lions debut, Jack Nowell didn’t die wondering and didn’t leave anything out on the field in a typically robust, combative all-action display. His 52 running metres and eight tackles give some idea as to his effectiveness on the night, but he was caught coming out of the line too quickly a couple of times, most notably for Rieko Ioane’s opening try. That gnarly, go-forward at every opportunity edge could well come in handy in the heat of a test battle, but he has to improve defensively.

 

2 & 3 – Gatland clearly looked to combinations throughout his selections for this match to try and foster some kind of cohesion. Welshmen Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar formed the halves combo; Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne made up an all-Ireland centre pairing; and the second row combined the power and athleticism of English locks Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes. Itoje was returning to a familiar stamping ground, having forged his reputation as ‘one to watch’ when he guided the England under 20’s team to Junior World Cup victory at Eden Park back in 2014. He carried 11 times against the Blues, and in tandem with Lawes, claimed nine throws and one steal at the lineout, but it was a crucial breakdown in communication, and a slack throw from Rory Best, that conspired to cruel the last set-piece of the game, and with it, the chance to steal victory. After a couple of years where he appeared to lose his way, Lawes has returned to world class form under England coach Eddie Jones, and his bruising defence may also be a feature Gatland looks to at the business end of the tour. But in what is probably the most hotly contested of positions, he and Itoje have to oust Alun-Wyn Jones, George Kruis and maybe even Iain Henderson for those starting spots.

Maro Itoje_Blues v Lions

Maro Itoje combines power and athleticism to damaging effect

4 – Let us all hope for the good of the game that the Lions rediscover their try-scoring mojo as the tour evolves. But if crossing the chalk continues to be a problem, the inclusion of Leigh Halfpenny for the test series would seem to be a given. The diminutive fullback kept the Lions in the hunt against the Blues through his prodigious boot, and history tells us that he is a man for the big occasion, with his 49pts in the three tests against Australia four years ago, helping him to the man of the series award. A match-winner if ever there was one.

5 – And finally to CJ Stander. The South-African born loose forward has excelled in the last couple of years for Munster and taken that form into the green jersey of Ireland to become one of the first names on the team sheet for coach Joe Schmidt. With 13 tackles, 19 carries, 36 metres and a try on debut, his stats pretty much speak for themselves, and his workrate and ability to get around the field and make repeat efforts must put him firmly in the eyes of Gatland. His only obstacles towards claiming the no.6 or 8 test jersey is the form of Taulupe Faletau and Ross Moriarty.

Next game: British & Irish Lions vs Crusaders, AAMI Park, Christchurch, Sat 10th June, 5.35pm AEST

 

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