Wednesday 25 April 2018

Lions roar as Peter O'Mahony leads Gatland's men to victory over Maori All Blacks

Maori All Blacks 10 British & Irish Lions 32

Taulupe Faletau of the Lions is hauled down short of the tryline
Taulupe Faletau of the Lions is hauled down short of the tryline

Ruaidhri O’Connor in Rotorua

The volcanic springs around Rotorua lend a certain sulphuric odour to the place, but that was nothing on the stench that hung over the Lions before this morning’s game as Warren Gatland came in for fierce criticism for parachuting four Welsh and two Scottish players into his squad on the basis of their proximity.

The decision was widely condemned and the tourists needed a strong performance and result from Peter OMahony’s shadow Test-match 23 to move the story on. They got it.

It lacked the fireworks of the All Blacks’ 12-try dismissal of Samoa, but in drizzly conditions that would have reminded the Irish players of a night at the Galway Sportsground it was mightily effective as they squeezed the life out of the Maori and silenced the enthusiastic 28,177-strong crowd.

Most of the starting XV did their chances of starting next week’s first Test no harm at all, with perhaps George North the only one to take a step backwards with another hesitant display.

Johnny Sexton of the Lions is tackled by Kane Hames
Johnny Sexton of the Lions is tackled by Kane Hames

The fitness of Owen Farrell remains a live issue, but Johnny Sexton’s excellent performance will have eased Gatland’s worries, while the back-row display of O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau means they should start next week as long as the captain shows no ill-effects of the knee issue he received treatment for before being replaced.

Ben Te’o was excellent in midfield, while Jon Davies showed imperfect promise and Leigh Halfpenny was safe as houses in the back-field while kicking his goals like his 2013 self.

Up front, the Lions obliterated the Maori scrum; dispelling doubts over their set-piece abilities and their lineout wasn’t bad.

They still need to improve their finishing, but it was another step forward for the Test side.

They started well and probed the Maori defence through Te’o twice before good combination play between Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Conor Murray got them in behind. Liam Messam strayed offside and Halfpenny opened the scoring.

A strong opening continued with Sexton helping to bundle Rieko Ioane into touch, creating the platform for a dominant maul and when Anthony Watson forced James Lowe to knock on and Akira Ioane played the ball coming back the Welsh full-back knocked over his second penalty.

The Maori hit back with a try that is likely to dominate the Lions’ video review. Maro Itoje won a good turnover, but his team-mates were rucked off the ball and the ball was moved wide to Nehe-Milner-Skudder and he chipped ahead.

North failed to gather the ball on the deck, allowing Liam Messam to chip ahead and then dive on the loose ball to score.

Tadhg Furlong of the British and Irish Lions (R) is tackled by New Zealand's Tawera Kerr-Barlow
Tadhg Furlong of the British and Irish Lions (R) is tackled by New Zealand's Tawera Kerr-Barlow

Damien McKenzie converted, but the Lions almost hit back as O’Brien pulled a lovely pass back to Jon Davies who sailed through a big gap but rather than find the support runner he tried to go himself and was stopped short. Elliot Dixon strayed offside from the subsequent ruck and Halfpenny put his side back in front.

Itoje then coughed up three points from the kick-off, carrying too high into contact for the Maori to force a scrum and then refusing to give the ball back resulting in Peyper upgrading it to a penalty. McKenzie made no mistake.

Sexton was playing well, breaking outside Ash Dixon and off-loading for Davies but the Wales centre spilled the ball in contact.

A strong Mako Vunipola poach forced a penalty for Sexton to move his team into Maori territory, before Akira Ioane failed to release before competing and Halfpenny knocked over the penalty.

Itoje’s ill-discipline almost cost his side again, but McKenzie’s long-ranger sailed wide but despite some late pressure the tourists made it in at half-time two points ahead.

Two swift Maori penalty concessions led to an official warning and fifth Halfpenny penalty and James Lowe’s poor knock-on under Sexton’s up-and-under handed the visiting side another opportunity.

From the scrum, the Lions went right and Tawera Kerr-Barlow left a shoulder on the Wales full-back he was handed 10 minutes in the sin-bin and Sexton kicked to the corner as the Lions looked to turn the screw.

Jamie George was short with his try, before the home scrum collapsed under enormous pressure and O’Mahony called for another. Once again, the scrum marched forward and Peyper awarded the penalty try.

They backed it up minutes later as Watson and Co forced Lowe over his own line. This time the scrum didn’t get over the line, but Faletau got close before Itoje bullied his way over.

Having been handed a gimme from the last try under the new laws, Halfpenny converted the second try and they kept going at the Maori, marching forward with a maul before Sexton put Te’o through a gap, he found Sean O’Brien but his off-load went to the deck and the chance passed.

He made up for it with a turnover minutes later and the men in red went through the phases, Iain Henderson carrying just short before Matty Proctor got over the ball and held the Irish second-row up.

Once again, the scrum forced a penalty and the Lions called for another despite O’Mahony receiving treatment on his knee and being replaced by Sam Warburton. Their control was lacking and Chris Eves’ turnover allowed the Maori to relieve the pressure.

Still, the Lions continued to dominate and Halfpenny stretched the lead with a penalty.

For all they tried to add to their 22 point lead, they couldn’t get over the line again.

They’ll be satisfied all the same. Twelve years ago the tour was derailed by a defeat to the Maori up the road in Hamilton, they’ll hope this comprehensive win will provide them much-needed momentum going into the Tests this time around.

MAORI ALL BLACKS – J Lowe; N Milner-Skudder, M Proctor, C Ngati, R Ioane; D McKenzie (I West 67), T Kerr-Barlow (B Hall 74); K Hames (C Eves 61), A Dixon (capt) (H Elliott 70), B May (M Renata 76); 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 59), J George (K Owens 65), T Furlong (K Sinckler 65); M Itoje, G Kruis (I Henderson  59); P O’Mahony (capt) (S Warburton 6), S O’Brien, T Faletau.

Referee: J Peyper (South Africa)

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