Wednesday 25 April 2018

Gatland's men finding form at right time

Maori All Blacks 10 British & Irish Lions 32

Ben Te'o of the Lions makes a break. Photo: Getty
Ben Te'o of the Lions makes a break. Photo: Getty

Robert Kiston

The Lions needed a good dress rehearsal going into next Saturday's first Test and this convincing win over the Maori All Blacks was perfectly timed.

New Zealand remain the most formidable force in world rugby but the Lions pack is displaying sufficient power and purpose to suggest the Eden Park outcome is not a total certainty.

Leigh Halfpenny scored 14 points
Leigh Halfpenny scored 14 points

In the Bay of Plenty rain the visitors certainly gave the Maori forwards a lesson in wet-weather rugby, dominating territory and possession and collectively staking a claim for selection in Auckland. Peter O'Mahony, Seán O'Brien and Maro Itoje, in particular, could have done little more to persuade Warren Gatland they deserve Test starting places ahead of Alun Wyn Jones, CJ Stander and Sam Warburton.

Competition for places is precisely what Gatland has always sought on this tour. A faultless goal-kicking display from Leigh Halfpenny, who finished with 20 points, ensured the Lions gained reward for their overwhelming pressure. They also claimed a penalty try and another close-range effort from Itoje, both scored when the Maori scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow was in the sin-bin.

In the first half, however, the impressive efforts of the Lions forwards were again undermined by frustrating little errors and needless infringements.

Four first-half Halfpenny penalties earned them a slim half-time lead but that advantage should have been greater. Liam Messam's 12th-minute kick-and-chase try was a real bonus for the Maori, the product of a costly fumble by George North.

Referee Jaco Peyper of South Africa awards a penalty try as the Lions drive towards the Maori line. Photo: Getty
Referee Jaco Peyper of South Africa awards a penalty try as the Lions drive towards the Maori line. Photo: Getty

The tricky, slippery conditions were certainly not to the free-running Maori's liking but, despite the excellent work of their forwards, the Lions are still finding it hard to cross the try-line. Jonathan Davies was pulled down just short when a try looked all but certain and the Maori also successfully killed the ball after Johnny Sexton, looking more like his old self, had nipped through a midfield gap.

Scorers - Maori All Blacks: L Messam try; D McKenzie 1 con, 1 pen. Lions: Penalty try; M Itoje try; L Halfpenny 2 cons, 6 pens.
Maori All Blacks: J Lowe; N Milner-Skudder, M Proctor (R Thomson 54), C Ngatai, R Ioane; D McKenzie (I West 72), T Kerr-Barlow (yc 48) (B Hall 74); K Hames (C Eves 61), A Dixon (capt) (H Elliot 70), B May (M Renata 70); J Wheeler (L Price 70), T Franklin; A Ioane, E Dixon (K Pryor 72), L Messam.
Lions: L Halfpenny; A Watson, J Davies, B Te'o, G North (E Daly 63); J Sexton (D Biggar 67), C Murray (G Laidlaw 67); M Vunipola (J McGrath 60), J George (K Owens 65), T Furlong (K Sinckler 65); M Itoje, G Kruis (I Henderson 60); P O'Mahony (capt) (S Warburton 63), S O'Brien, T Faletau.
Referee: J Peyper (SA).

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