Wednesday 25 April 2018

Murray content to keep winning ugly as long as Lions make progress towards end goal

Maori ABs 10 Lions 32

Conor Murray: Adapting to the winter conditions Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Conor Murray: Adapting to the winter conditions Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

There was nothing in the Lions' mission statement that said they had to beat the All Blacks at their own game.

The best players from Britain and Ireland are playing a style of rugby that they're comfortable with; one that suits the conditions on a tour that has been largely blessed with good weather until match-day, when the heavens routinely open.

Warren Gatland has assembled an excellent, teak-tough tight five and a back-row that looks well-balanced, aggressive and skilful. His half-backs, whether it's Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell at No 10, are tactically adept and among the best strategic kickers in the game.

While there are issues beyond the No 12 shirt - where Ben Te'o has been excellent, but could still make way to accommodate the Sexton-Farrell combination - they haven't been exposed just yet.

Rather, their Saturday team has been a dominant forward force; brushing the Maori All Blacks aside in Rotorua thanks to a strong set-piece display that led to them out-scoring their hosts 22-0 in the second-half.

Their first try was a penalty try, their second a strong carry from Maro Itoje after more hard work up front and clever kicking. Leigh Halfpenny kicked everything presented to him. It was simple, but hugely effective.

Whether it is enough at Eden Park on Saturday remains to be seen, but certainly the Lions will apply far more pressure to New Zealand than Samoa did when being beaten 78-0 on Friday.

This week represents a savage step up in class that few teams would be able to live with, but there is a quiet confidence within the Lions set-up.

And they are stubbornly refusing to play it any way other than their own.

"We converted pressure into points, which was really pleasing," Conor Murray said.

"It's winter down here, it is going to be difficult, so you adapt to the conditions and play to what you think your strengths are.

"I thought we did that quite effectively and the kicking part is one part of it. The maul and the scrum put us in positions to kick penalties to touch and gain territory, and it was a battle for that.

"Running from your own half probably wasn't on tonight because of the slippery conditions and the rain falling.

"Kicking is part of rugby. A lot of teams kick like that and getting the ball back is really important when you do exit your half. It's a weapon, and something we work really hard at, but the All Blacks do it too.

"They do it really effectively; Aaron Smith and TJ (Perenara) kick really well and the lads get after them. It's part of rugby. The focus seems to be on that, but the type of conditions we've had dictate that a little bit also, so we'd like to think that we're adaptable and it's going quite well."

On paper, the strongest area of the Maori team was their back three and their back-row, but the Lions made life hell for Leinster-bound James Lowe and the All Black wingers alongside him; while the dynamic trio of Akira Ioane, Elliot Dixon and Liam Messam were out-played.

The Maori's exciting backline just never got the ball they needed to create chances, as the tourists got in Damian McKenzie's face from minute one and shut him down. Their only try was a fortuitous one from Messam and, while they didn't score from their open play attacks, the Lions looked the more dangerous of the two teams.

Their finishing needs to get better, but having moved the story on from the controversial addition of six unheralded midweek squad players for a week to help ring-fence the Test team, the tourists can concentrate on the series knowing no one but themselves expect a positive outcome.

"We are still developing as a team and are still finding our identity," hooker Jamie George said.

"We are really pushing towards doing something special and I think we did put down a marker with the way we played, the way that we defended and our set piece in general. All in all we are pretty happy with it. I feel there is much more to come, I really do.

"In the teams I've played in, the Crusaders to this game - huge progression. You've got to look at the way we defended. We felt very comfortable in defence.

"We are trying to put teams under as much pressure as physically possible and I thought we did that. I thought the centres were fantastic in leading the defence and you just have to try and follow their lead.

"I thought we put them under a lot of pressure, barring the try, which was the bounce of a ball.

"It's a brilliant pack. Look at the pack tonight; four of the tight five were Sarries and England, which is obviously fantastic for those guys.

"The type of rugby we play for Saracens and England is one that has dominance up front. Then add in the class of Tadhg Furlong and the back row guys - it's amazing to be part of that eight."

They roll into Test week with a renewed confidence that their plan is working - and that it's starting to get under the locals' skin.

A series win remains a long shot, but the Lions are making progress.

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.

REF - J Peyper (South Africa)

Irish Independent

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