Irishmen to the fore as Lions secure brilliant win over Crusaders
Crusaders 3 Lions 12
The Lions have finally arrived in New Zealand. A team that had a distinctly Test match feel about it delivered in spades in Christchurch, ending the Crusaders 14-match 100pc record and breathing life into their tour.
The Irish contingent were to the forefront of the effort for Warren Gatland’s side. Tadhg Furlong dominated both All Black loosheads, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien were everywhere and Conor Murray oozed class. Even Johnny Sexton, once again on early, was beginning to look like his old self as he linked up well with Owen Farrell who moved to inside centre.
This was billed as the most difficult warm-up game on their itinerary, but it could have been a far more comfortable win for Warren Gatland’s side who passed up a succession of gilt-edged chances.
That finishing ability should come with time, but the superb defensive effort will please them no end as they held one of the most potent attacks in world rugby tryless.
The red line was suffocating, coming up hard and meeting the men in black behind the gainline and preventing them from getting their passing game going.
After a difficult opening week, it serves as a well-timed lift to the squad as they move to Dunedin ahead of their game with the Highlanders on Tuesday and on to Rotorua for the clash with the Maori next Saturday.
Gatland has ear-marked that clash as a Test dress-rehearsal and it seems likely that a similar cast of characters will be seeing action once again.
The Lions started with real intent and almost scored a first-minute try but for the intervention of Richie Mounga who intercepted Jon Davies’ pass to George North who had a clear run to the line.
North was on defensive duties as the high-tempo game swung to the other end and from a quick-tapped scrum free-kick, Mounga kicked to George Bridge who was man-handled into touch by the Welsh winger.
Owen Farrell kicked his side in front after O’Mahony had brilliantly stolen a Crusaders lineout.
The English out-half doubled the advantage after Tadhg Furlong won a scrum penalty and the Lions’ dominance in that area after the front-row likely to start the first Test for the All Blacks was hugely encouraging.
Stuart Hogg almost broke free before having his day ended by Murray’s elbow and the home side struck back at scrum time, winning a penalty with a huge drive and they made sure the Lions knew all about it with their raucous celebration afterwards.
After a jittery opening, the Crusaders began to play and North coughed up a penalty for Mounga to get his side on the board after flanker Matt Todd skinned Davies on the outside.
For all of their positive intent, the Lions’ attack was still struggling with the final pass and Davies spilled Farrell’s final pass after the tourists’ again found joy on their own kick-off.
Sexton came on as Davies went for a Head Injury assessment and linked up with Farrell who moved one out to No 12.
The Saracens man continued the kicking and punished a Crusaders off-side with his third penalty, but the Crusaders were almost away when Murray put a poor pass on the deck and Mounga raced clear but O’Brien never gave up and hunted the out-half down.
The scrambling Lions conceded a penalty and Mounga kicked to touch. Gatland’s men defended their line stoutly, and when the home side turned down a certain three points the men in red escaped as Jordan Taufua knocked on the maul transfer.
The Lions finished the half on the front-foot, but couldn’t break the home side down as Mako Vunipola got turned over and the hosts could clear.
They started the second-half in similar style, with O’Mahony cleverly kicking the ball out of a Crusaders ruck and when Farrell hacked on Israel Dagg was forced to put the ball into touch.
The lineout malfunctioned and they missed another chance as Farrell nudged a penalty wide from right in front of the posts.
It was becoming a pattern, Te’o’s final pass to Williams was woefully high and they were almost punished as Jack Goodhue left stepped inside Farrell and raced clear, chipping ahead for Bridge but the winger couldn’t collect the kick under pressure from North.
Anthony Watson thought he’d scored his second try on tour, latching on to Liam Williams’ kick but the Welshman had knocked on as he tried to collect and another chance passed.
Another one came and went when Watson found a gap, raced clear and found Sexton wide left. He spotted CJ Stander, but the pass didn’t stick.
More good play went unrewarded as Farrell put Sexton through a gap and he found Williams wide. Although the Crusaders strayed offside, the tourists couldn’t find a way over and Farrell had to settle for making it 12-3.
It was enough. There are areas to improve, but this was a big step forward.
CRUASADERS – I Dagg; S Tamanivalu, J Goodhue, D Havili, G Bridge (T Bateman 66); R Mounga (M Hunt 75), B Hall (M Drummond 62); J Moody (W Crockett 51), C Taylor (B Funnell 51), O Franks (M Alaalatoa 51); L Romano (Q Strange 56), S Whitelock (capt); H Bedwell-Curtis (J Brown 62), M Todd, J Taufua.
LIONS – S Hogg (A Watson 20); G North, J Davies (J Sexton 29 HIA), B Te’o, L Williams; O Farrell, C Murray; M Vunipola (J McGrath 62), J George (K Owens 66), T Furlong (D Cole 66); AW Jones (capt), G Kruis (M Itoje 62); P O’Mahony, S O’Brien (CJ Stander 56), T Faletau.
Referee: M Raynal (France)