WATCH - Lions win the set-piece battle but lose the war after Ihaia West's stunning late try
This was better from the Lions, but a three-tries-to-one defeat to the least reliable of the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises is not a good omen for the weeks ahead. Their rate of improvement needs to get faster or they're in for a long tour.
The Auckland Blues are a talented, but flawed outfit who usually find a way to lose tight games. After scoring a sensational try to put themselves in front, they handed the tourists two late chances to win it and both were passed up.
One was down to ill-discipline, the other a Rory Best lineout that flew over Maro Itoje’s head. They are the kind of things that happen a team that is still coming together, but this is an unforgiving environment in which to try and grow as a team.
On Saturday, they step up in class again when they face the unbeaten Crusaders in Christchurch and with a travel day tomorrow there is little time for Warren Gatland to tweak things.
For all of their talk of attacking intent, they showed very little in bad conditions and their one try came from CJ Stander at the back of a maul.
Andy Farrell’s defence was carved open at times and the damage could have been worse.
Still, it was an improvement on the shambolic opening night against the ramshackle Provincial Barbarians. The Blues are a cohesive professional outfit packed with talented players. The problem is all of the Super Rugby teams possess such threats.
Johnny Sexton showed more having been introduced early and is set to play for a third time in a week on Saturday after Dan Biggar left the field having suffered a head injury. Jared Payne’s calf flared up early in the second-half, but otherwise there were no injuries.
That’s the positive, the negative is that the local predictions of a succession of losses in the build-up to the Tests is threatening to become a reality. Steve Hansen picks his squad tomorrow and was at Eden Park, he’ll be quietly happy with what he saw.
The Blues pulled controversial All Black lock Patrick Tuitulopu from their bench before the game after he’d shown up late for training, but they barely missed him.
The Lions started sharply, going through a long series of phases with Jack Nowell and CJ Stander showing well but they were undone at the breakdown. As the Blues looked to attack from inside their own half, a loose ball fell to Jared Payne but he lost the race to keep up with the ball and was denied a dream start to his return.
The first signs of danger for the Lions came when Sonny Bill Williams stripped Stander and the hosts moved the ball swiftly to their left wing to the dangerous Rieko Ioane. It ended in a Blues scrum after a knock-on, but it was a signal of intent.
From the scrum, Steven Perofeta’s first significant act was a delightful cross-kick to Matt Duffie whose march was halted by Leigh Halfpenny. Back they came and, using the hands of Charlie Faumaunia as a decoy, they created space for the younger Ioane brother and he scorched Nowell to score.
Perofeta missed the conversion and after his mistake from the kick-off allowed the Lions build through the phases and Payne was almost in again only for the young out-half to force him to put a foot in touch in the act of scoring.
Their play was far more convincing than it had been in Whangarei and they countered off loose play through James Haskell and then kicked to the corner when handed a kickable penalty.
Their maul came down as was followed by a high tackle Gerard Cowley-Tuioti and Dan Biggar found the corner again and this time the Blues competed on their feet, allowing the Lions to slowly edge their way over with the drive and CJ Stander touched down for his first try in this shade of red.
Leigh Halfpenny converted and added a penalty when the Blues collapsed the scrum under their own posts.
The Blues thought they’d levelled when Ofa Tuungafasi nailed Biggar and Rieko Ioane sauntered home, but a review showed the prop was blatantly offside and the score was ruled out.
Biggar needed a Head Injury Assessment, meaning Johnny Sexton found himself on earlier than expected.
The tourists finished the half on the back foot as the Blues took them through the phases, but Perofeta hit the post with a kickable penalty but Williams beat Sexton to the ball after Nowell palmed the ball back into his in-goal area and the young out-half added the conversion to give his side the lead. Television Match Official Marius Jonker had a long look at whether TJ Faiane’s hand had pushed the ball forward, but in the end the try stood.
The Blues began the second-half on the front-foot, with Justin Tipuric conceding a penalty that allowed Perofeta kick for touch.
They worked a neat move at the front of the lineout, before patiently attacking along the goal-line and working some space for Rieko Ioane out left but just like Payne in the first-half he trod in touch in the act of scoring under pressure from Nowell and the try was ruled out.
The hosts were almost in minutes later as the Ioanes combined with Rieko skinning Nowell and finding Akira but his off-load just couldn’t stick as Duffie tried to collect with the line at his mercy.
Tipuric handed Ihaia West the chance to extend his side’s lead after coming on for Perofeta and the more experienced out-half made no mistake.
The Lions should have had a chance to narrow the gap when the Blues were penalised at maul time, but the penalty was reversed when Liam Williams played Duffie in the air when contesting Sexton’s bomb and the home side cleared their lines.
Williams then repeated the act on the same player and put his team in trouble by picking up a deserved yellow card.
West kicked to touch, but Rieko Ioane had another effort chalked off – this time for a forward pass and the Lions were able to narrow the gap at the other end as their first coherent series of phases of the second-half resulted in a penalty for Halfpenny to knock over.
As Williams returned to the field with his team having limited the damage, a Scott Scrafton penalty allowed Sexton establish field position but Ken Owens’ delivery into the lineout was crooked.
He was replaced by Rory Best and the replacement front-row earned a penalty from the resultant scrum. Halfpenny made no mistake with a difficult kick and the Lions were back in front.
The lead didn’t last long as the Blues wrested control of the game back with a sensational score from nothing.
Steven Luatua’s offload out of Courtney Lawes’ tackle found Williams and he rode Liam Williams’ tackle and off-loaded to West who took the ball at pace to leave Sexton for dead, round Halfpenny and score, adding the conversion for good-measure.
With four minutes remaining, the Lions were four down and needed something they hadn’t shown thus far but after good play from Greig Laidlaw and Nowell got them in position, Maro Itoje went off his feet at a breakdown and allowed the Blues off the hook.
They tried to play their way home from two minutes out and ultimately went off their feet, allowing Sexton kick to the corner but Best missed Itoje and the chance was gone.
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.
Referee: P Gauzere (France)