Dogged Lions frustrate Crusaders for vital win

Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Far from perfect but much, much better. That would probably be the report card attributed to last night’s 12-3 victory for the British & Irish Lions over the Crusaders in Christchurch. In a tryless contest, the boot of Owen Farrell was the difference, with the English flyhalf slotting four penalties – actually five, but more of that later – to secure a vital win for the under-fire tourists.

Having just scraped home in their opening match of the tour, and then gone down to the Blues in game two last Wednesday, the pressure was on coach Warren Gatland and his squad to step up a few notches against the current runaway Super Rugby leaders. And while there is still plenty to work on – the attack in particular, with only two tries from three matches – the defensive effort that held a side averaging 37pts per game in 2017 augurs well for the battles ahead.

It was the home side playing all the rugby early on, the Lions using high balls, clearing kicks and the maul to try and garner territory. But coach Scott Robertson wouldn’t have been too impressed with his side’s discipline in the first 10 minutes, two free-kicks for going early at scrum time released the pressure valve on the Lions in their own half, and hands in the ruck cost them the first points of the night, Owen Farrell slotting 3pts from in front.

When Farrell bagged another three after his forwards had forced a scrum penalty, the tourists had emerged relatively unscathed from a highly-charged first quarter. Unbeaten they may be in Super Rugby, but the Crusaders were making the kind of mistakes we just haven’t seen throughout their imperious 14 match winning streak.

Friendly fire took Stuart Hogg out of the fray soon after, the Lions fullback copping an unintentional elbow from his scrum half Conor Murray, and bequeathing the AMI Stadium turf with copious amounts of Scottish claret as a result. And there was a little more red stuff being spilt a few minutes later when the Crusaders returned fire at the scrum to win a penalty and made sure their opponents knew all about it, which cued a bit of handbags from all involved and left Lions skipper Alun-Wyn Jones bloodied but unbowed.

Owen Farrell kicks a penalty 10/6/2017

Owen Farrell kicked four penalties and positioned himself as a front-runner for test selection     Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

It was the moment that the home side needed, something tangible to hang their hat on, calm the nerves and put some fire in the belly. It was no coincidence that the fluidity began to come soon after, and after Richie Mo’unga had breached a gap down the left flank and earned a penalty, it was he who stepped up to reduce the arrears to just three.

A HIA for Jonathan Davies, hit hard by Mo’unga when a potentially try-scoring pass fell behind him, forced a reshuffle in the Lions backline. Farrell, impressing in his start at 10, may well have been a tad miffed to move out one spot to accommodate the introduction of Jonathan Sexton, with whom he is battling for the starting flyhalf spot in the test series, while Ben Te’o moved out to the unfamiliar territory of 13.

But it was Farrell and not Sexton, whether by coaching mandate or a self-imposed powerplay, who retained the kicking duties from both hand and tee. Kicking to touch from a ruck penalty to get the Lions in position, it was the Saracens pivot who restored the six point advantage on the half hour, when the Crusaders strayed offside from the ensuing play.

Mo’unga however, was beginning to cut loose in open play, riffing off his recent good form in Super Rugby and challenging the Lions defence at every opportunity with his running game. And when the ball spilt loose on halfway and the flyhalf raced clear with no-one home, it looked like he was going to bag the first five-pointer of the night. But a terrific effort from flanker Sean O’Brien to track back forced him to check his stride and look for support, the red-shirted cavalry recovered, and the chance was gone.

The home side blew another opportunity for points juts before the break. A gift three from in front was eschewed by captain Sam Whitelock, preferring to back the lineout drive that has earned more tries than any other side in Super Rugby this season. But a loose carry from Jordan Tuafua brought an abrupt end to that particular avenue of attack, and the half ended with the Lions back on the front foot but still unable to find that elusive try.

Richie Mounga_Lions v Crusaders_2017

Richie Mo’unga did his best to prise open a stoic Lions defence

The first points of the second half looked set to be going the Lions way when Taufua was pinged for not rolling away. But to the incredulity of Farrell, his team mates, and pretty much anyone with decent eyesight, the touch judges flags remained firmly by their side, despite replays on the big screen highlighting the oversight.

Having had their game plan questioned after the previous loss, the Lions weren’t kicking any less than they had against the Blues, but the difference was, thanks in the main to the renowned accuracy of Conor Murray’s boot, they were more accurate, more contestable, and backed up by a far greater kick-chase desire. As a result, the hosts were losing the aerial battle and struggling to find any space out wide to get their wingers George Bridge and Seta Tamanivalu involved.

They were also left scratching their heads at some of the set-piece and breakdown interpretations applied by French referee Mathieu Raynal. But it wasn’t down to him that they spurned another opportunity in the 51st minute. Livewire centre Jack Goodhue broke the line and carried 40 metres before putting a kick into the corner for Bridge. But one of the breakout wingers in Super Rugby this year with eight tries to his name, fluffed his lines on the biggest stage and put the ball down as he tried to regather, with the line begging.

Anthony Watson, on for the unfortunate Hogg, thought he had crossed for his second try of the tour a few minutes later, only for the TMO to correctly rule a knock on from Liam Williams in the build-up. But there were no excuses just before the hour, Watson again involved with a break down the left flank that found Sexton, only for his pass infield to be dropped cold by Jamie George. He still had a couple of Crusaders looming on his radar but as one of the fastest hookers going around, you would have backed him in to make something of the situation nonetheless.

The Crusaders continued to hammer away in vain, the Lions’ linespeed cloaking their efforts in a red blanket, and the tourists happy to clear upfield and invite a kicking duel, or force their opponents to run from deep. But when they did get within sight of the Crusaders line in the 69th minute, they had the forward power to pick and drive and force a penalty, and this time Farrell’s successful kick was honoured by the officials.

As the game drew to a finish, it was the tourists who looked the more likely to add to the fallow scoreboard, the valiant Crusaders simply not finding their best form when they needed it. But if coach Gatland can draw many positives from this vastly improved performance from his side, defensively in particular, it is that lack of cutting edge at the other end that will be keeping him up at night.

British & Irish Lions 12 (Owen Farrell 4 pens) defeated Crusaders 3 (Richie Mo’unga pen) HT 9-3

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Liam Williams with Richie Mounga 10/6/2017

Liam Williams pencilled his name into Gatland’s starting test XV with an industrious performance Photo: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Lions Watch – Potential Starting XV:

Two wins and a defeat for the tourists then, as their rugby charabanc heads further south of the Shaky Isles to take on the Highlanders in Dunedin on Tuesday night. The entire travelling squad have all got some game time now, and with impressive performances from Owen Farrell, Conor Murray, Mako Vunipola, Alun-Wyn Jones, Liam Williams and Anthony Watson against the Crusaders, the selection headaches for Warren Gatland must be pleasingly intensifying ahead of the first test in just under two weeks. So, who has nailed their colours to the mast so far, and who has fallen down the pecking order. Here’s a wholly uneducated guess as to what might be going on inside Gatland’s head right now!

Warren Gatland’s possible starting Lions XV:

1. Mako Vunipola; 2. Rory Best; 3. Tadhg Furlong; 4. George Kruis; 5. Alun-Wyn Jones; 6. CJ Stander; 7. Sam Warburton; 8. Taulepe Faletau; 9. Conor Murray; 10. Owen Farrell; 11. Liam Williams; 12. Ben Te’o; 13. Jonathan Davies; 14. George North; 15. Leigh Halfpenny

Replacements:

16. Ken Owens; 17. Joe Marler; 18. Dan Cole; 19. Maro Itoje; 20. Ross Moriarty; 21. Rhys Webb; 22. Jonathan Sexton; 23. Anthony Watson

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Next game: British & Irish Lions vs Highlanders, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, Tues 13th June, 5.35pm AEST

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