Impressive Lions banish tour gloom as Test side begins to take shape
Christchurch was not the place the Lions wanted to be going in desperate search of momentum. The Crusaders were unbeaten in 14 Super Rugby matches this season, averaging five tries a game and finding new ways to get out of tight encounters under their impressive young coach Scott Robertson.
The Lions kept them to three points, draining them of belief through their suffocating defence and relentless physicality; squeezing them at the set-piece and limiting their opportunities.
The Irish were to the forefront of the effort: Tadhg Furlong saw off two All Black props, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien covered ground and put their hats firmly in the selection ring. Conor Murray drew high praise from the locals. Again, Johnny Sexton came on early when Jon Davies was forced off with concussion, and in his third game in seven days he began to look like his old self.
With the brilliant Owen Farrell shifting out one to No 12, the Ireland out-half was able to dovetail well with his new partner in crime and the option is a serious one for Warren Gatland. Whether from the start or as a change-up during the second half, the much-touted idea is now realistic.
The Lions coach will now have a good idea of the template for the Tests. His team need to develop their attacking finesse: they created a number of try-scoring opportunities but couldn't finish, but they'll hope that clinical edge will come with time.
Gatland has a big call to make on his captain. Sam Warburton missed out with injury and is struggling for fitness. In his absence, O'Brien played for the first time since April 1 and was outstanding. His combination with O'Mahony and Taulupe Faletau looked well balanced, and interestingly the coach hailed his influence and leadership in the aftermath.
Gatland also noted how O'Mahony had stolen an early lineout, and he is keen to have a strong back-row option in the air.
Warburton is expected to return on Tuesday against the Highlanders, but O'Brien has earned the right to start against the Maori All Blacks next Saturday. Given that the head coach has already ear-marked that game as the dress rehearsal for the Test team, the prospect of the skipper not starting is a very real one.
The Lions' defensive work was excellent, but their next mission is to finish their dinner. Gatland believes that will come with more time on the training pitch.
"We were up against the most creative team in Super Rugby at the moment and I thought they didn't create a lot of chances," he said.
"The ball was slippery out there, it was tough holding on to it in the conditions and we saw a few players slip over.
"But we are creating some chances and yes, we need to get better. The more time that we are together, the more the players get used to and familiar with the voices, and with time in training together and out on the field, hopefully we do finish those chances."
Gatland has consistently said he is looking at Farrell as a No 10, but was willing to pair him with Sexton at some point to see how they get on as a combination. The early signs were very promising for the Lions' attack, with the duo linking well despite apparently not having trialled it in training.
"Johnny Sexton did well when he came on; we talked about looking at that 10-12 combination, and given the experience of both of those two players they were able to cope with that - we hadn't worked on that in training at all," Gatland said.
"Having to move Ben (Te'o) to No 13 and Anthony (Watson) to No 15, they should be pleased with that in terms of reshuffling and the combinations.
"Owen definitely had a good game; for me the most pleasing bit of his game was his kicks to touch, which put them under pressure."
As the first Test edges closer, the identity of those players who will take on the All Blacks is becoming clearer. The injury toll is low, two failed Head Injury Assessments to Stuart Hogg and Davies aside, and the confidence will grow off the back of this win.
The tight five have put their hands up - Furlong is a Test cert and the combination of Alun-Wyn Jones and George Kruis looks the most likely for Eden Park. The back-row depends on Gatland's willingness to ditch his captain, while Conor Murray inked his name in, and the only question is whether he's joined by Sexton with Farrell at No 12.
Te'o's performance laid down a marker to Robbie Henshaw, who needs a big game on Tuesday, but the back-three remains wide open after a night where Anthony Watson played reasonably well but the Welsh wingers failed to fire.
Gatland will be hoping more players put their hands up in the coming days, but for now he can reflect on a job well done and look forward to a few days of not facing relentless criticism.
Their tour is up and running and suddenly their prospects are beginning to look less dark.
Sunday Indo Sport