Sunday 21 January 2018

Blues' All Black magic casts spell on toothless Lions

Blues 22 Lions 16

Auckland Blues' Rieko Ioane. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Auckland Blues' Rieko Ioane. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

If the Lions are to have a hope of completing their impossible mission later this month, then they will have to learn to create something out of nothing.

As they left Eden Park yesterday morning they spoke of their need to tighten up discipline, to stop offering their opponents entry points into games, but the real difference between these two teams was the ability to make something happen.

It was Steven Luatua's instinctive knowledge that Maro Itoje had opened the door for him. He rode Courtney Lawes' tackle and fed Sonny Bill Williams, who didn't need asking twice.

The double World Cup winner raced through the gap and even as he took Liam Williams' thundering tackle there was only one thing on his mind as his head swivelled and he laid eyes on Ihiaia West.

The replacement out-half knew his team-mate would find him and committed fully to the run, taking Sonny Bill's off-load in his stride and scorching Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar to score what would prove to be the winning try.

The Lions will reflect on the two chances they let pass them by in the closing moments, but for all of their admirable efforts they didn't possess the class to unlock a defence the way the Blues did in the 75th minute.

Joe Marler trudges off the field as the Auckland Blues players celebrate at the final whistle. Photo: Martin England/SNPA via Reuters
Joe Marler trudges off the field as the Auckland Blues players celebrate at the final whistle. Photo: Martin England/SNPA via Reuters

It was a try worthy of winning any game and it will enter local folklore. Beating the Lions is something to be cherished, and this is a country where such moments are appreciated more than most.

The key for the Lions is ensuring they don't become the scalp du jour here. The steps up keep coming, and while their defence needs improving, their attack has produced just two tries.

They started well at Eden Park, hogging the ball for large periods but they were undone by a nice piece of diversion from prop Charlie Faumuina and the pace of the brilliant Rieko Ioane on the outside.

CJ Stander's maul try and kicks from Leigh Halfpenny put them back in control, but a stroke of luck on the cusp of half-time allowed Sonny Bill Williams to score a game-changing try.

Jared Payne goes over the line but the try was disallowed. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Jared Payne goes over the line but the try was disallowed. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

The Lions kicked their way back into a winning position, but the brilliant double-off-load try won the day.

It might have been rescued but for a penalty concession and a stray lineout, but it was a reminder that in these parts you have to be able to score if you're going to win games.

"It's something that's really prevalent around our country and in our team: we want to keep the ball alive and get that second-phase play going and get in behind teams," said Blues coach Tana Umaga.

"If you can't stop that, it's very, very difficult when you're going backwards all the time.

"The ability to try and stop those off-loads (is important), and for about 70 minutes they were able to do that.

"We did chuck some to the ground when trying to keep the ball alive, but for 80 minutes we keep backing ourselves. We have confidence in what we want to do and we keep backing ourselves to play our game. And we get the rewards for it."

Learning from this defeat and the dangers of Super Rugby sides is a priority.

Switch off

"You can't switch off for one second against these teams, if you do they hurt you," Halfpenny said. "They play to the full 80 minutes and we have to be fully focused. One lapse of concentration, it can hurt you.

"We kept to our structures that we've been working on, there's still improvement to go there.

"On occasions when it was on to play, we did, but there's still improvements.

"We feel it was an improved performance from the last game but it's disappointing to lose, but we've got to pick ourselves up quickly."

Today, Steve Hansen names his All Black squad for the Series and it will be full of X-factor. Gatland's challenge is unearthing game-breakers. Otherwise it will be a long tour.

Blues - M Collins; M Duffie (TJ Faiane 40-41 HIA), G Moala (TJ Faiane 66), SB Williams, R Ioane; S Perofeta (I West 51), A Pulu (S Nock 72); O Tuungafasi (A Hodgman 57), J Parsons (capt) (H Faiva 69), C Faumuina (S Mafileo 57); G Cowley-Tuioti, S Scrafton; A Ioane, B Gibson (K Pryor 66), S Luatua.

Lions - L Halfpenny; J Nowell, J Payne, R Henshaw, E Daly; D Biggar (J Sexton 35 HIA), R Webb (G Laidlaw 75); J McGrath (J Marler 54), K Owens (capt) (R Best 68), D Cole (K Sinckler 55); M Itoje, C Lawes (I Henderson 76); J Haskell (P O'Mahony 54), J Tipuric, CJ Stander.

Ref - P Gauzere (France)

Irish Independent

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