How the Blues triumphed against the 2017 Lions at Eden Park
The Blues inflicted a famous defeat on the British & Irish Lions, a stunning 74th-minute try for replacement fly-half Ihaia West the decisive blow.
The Lions did have a chance to snatch the victory when they were awarded a penalty in the final minute. Johnny Sexton found touch seven metres from the Blues’ line but Rory Best’s throw went awry, the hosts secured possession and put the ball into touch.
The tourists had started brightly, stringing phases together and attacking down the wings – as they did on Saturday – but it was the Blues who struck first through Rieko Ioane. Midway through the half CJ Stander drove over from a lineout maul and Leigh Halfpenny’s conversion, and a later penalty, put the Lions in front.
The Blues led 12-10 at half-time, however, as they reacted better from a penalty attempt hitting the post in the last minute. Jack Nowell and TJ Faiane both leapt for the ball, the Englishman knocked it back but it was Sonny Bill Williams who was on hand to score.
The hosts dominated the early exchanges after the break and the Lions could not get a foothold in the game, or even in Blues territory. While they were smart in how they managed Liam Williams’s ten-minute spell in the sin-bin for a tackle in the air, they struggled to put the phases together and get points on the board. A couple of Halfpenny penalties did put the Lions in front going into the last ten minutes – but then came West’s try and the Lions, with a better performance overall than on Saturday, blew their chance to snatch the win at the end.
Which Lions caught the eye?
Rhys Webb – A bright spark throughout at scrum-half, until cramp struck in the closing minutes. Delivered quick ball from the breakdown to his fly-half – be it Dan Biggar or Johnny Sexton, who came on when the Welshman suffered a head injury in the first half – and was continually driving the Lions’ attack.
Courtney Lawes – The England lock made his presence felt with several uncompromising tackles – something of a trademark for the Northampton Saint – and also showed up well as a ball-carrier. Plus, he was part of a pack that dominated at scrum time.
Back-handed offloads – Steven Luatua’s back-handed flick in the 74th minute released Sonny Bill Williams to scythe through midfield and when he was stopped by Liam Williams, he produced the type of offload we’ve been accustomed to seeing so often from the All Blacks centre. The pass found Ihaia West, who then stepped around Leigh Halfpenny to score the decisive try. Expect the Lions to go higher in the tackle from now on to try to prevent those offloads.
Ioane double act – On the wing is the younger Ioane, Rieko, who showed his pace throughout. He’s a real danger man, gliding past Jack Nowell for the opening try and crossing the line on another two occasions only to have his efforts – rightly – ruled out by the TMO. Then in the back row is Akira, the larger of the two, who was a real nuisance at the breakdown, regularly the first Blues player to latch onto the ball at contact and try to get those vital turnovers. The pair combined well, too, Rieko often making the tackle and Akira then going for the ball, and in the second half they linked to break down the wing only for the next pass to be knocked on.
Hardy fans – It was a lovely afternoon in Auckland but shortly before kick-off the rain came down and late in the second half it hammered down again. They weren’t pleasant conditions for watching rugby, particularly in those exposed stands at Eden Park, but the weather didn’t seem to bother the 40,639 crowd in attendance.
Missed opportunities – As in their opening game on Saturday, the Lions struggled to finish off the chances they created. Over the past few days there has been much talk of being clinical and accurate, but early on here an overlap was blown out wide. There is still work to do in that area. It’s good that the opportunities are being created, although those opportunities did dry up somewhat in the second 40, but they need to become more ruthless. They were given a lesson in just how ruthless New Zealand sides are with the Blues outscoring them three tries to one, and getting over on just as many occasions but having those efforts ruled out.
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Lineout discipline – The Lions were clearly keen to put on pressure at lineout time, indeed they scored their opening try through CJ Stander off the back of a lineout drive, but they need to tighten up in terms of discipline in that area. Within four minutes they conceded a free-kick as they closed the gap at a Blues defensive lineout near their 22 and later in the half they did the same, which resulted in a penalty. The tourists were also penalised for pulling down the jumper. On their own throw the lineout functioned well – the set-piece as a whole was a plus, with the tourists dominating at the scrum too – but these needless penalties at defensive lineouts allowed the Blues to gain territory and put the Lions under pressure. Overall, the Lions need to tighten up in terms of discipline, the 13 penalties conceded at Eden Park a concern.
Eden Park playlist – The music blaring out at breaks in play and after scores could do with a little updating! Enough of the Mexican wave too.
14 – Number of offloads made by the Blues, compared to four by the Lions.
13 – Turnovers conceded by the Blues, compared to eight by the Lions.
18 – Defenders beaten by the Blues, compared to 12 by the Lions.
Blues: Michael Collins; Matt Duffie (TJ Faiane 38-40), George Moala (Faiane 66), Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Stephen Perofeta (Ihaia West 51), Augustine Pulu (Sam Nock 70); Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Alex Hodgman 57), James Parsons (capt, Hame Faiva 70), Charlie Faumuina (Sione Mafileo 57), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (Jimmy Tupou 57), Scott Scrafton, Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson (Kara Pryor 66), Steven Luatua.
Tries: R Ioane, Williams, West. Cons: Perofeta, West. Pen: West.
British & Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny; Jack Nowell, Jared Payne (Liam Williams 48), Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly; Dan Biggar (Johnny Sexton 36), Rhys Webb (Greig Laidlaw 75); Jack McGrath (Joe Marler 54), Ken Owens (capt, Rory Best 68), Dan Cole (Kyle Sinckler 55), Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes (Iain Henderson 75), James Haskell (Peter O’Mahony 54), Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander.
Try: Stander Con: Halfpenny. Pens: Halfpenny 3.
Yellow card: Williams (57min).