Following a lacklustre match against the New Zealand Barbarians and a hard-fought loss against the Blues, the British & Irish Lions responded in style this morning by beating the Canterbury Crusaders 12-3.
This may have been a warm-up match against a franchise side and not a full test, but this was an important victory for several reasons. Firstly, the Crusaders have been the best side in New Zealand – and the entire Super Rugby competition – this season, and were unbeaten until today. Even the Kiwis will have been impressed by a touring side that can beat this Crusaders team on only their third match. Secondly, the team features several All Blacks, particularly in the forwards. The Lions got a good look at Sam Whitelock today and helped themselves to what ought to have been his ball in at least one lineout. Thirdly, even though the Lions didn’t score a try, nor did the Crusaders. This is almost unheard of: the Crusaders normally accumulate cricket scores against their opponents, and I suspect this is their lowest match score for several years.
The Lions started exceptionally well, thanks to Luke Romano fumbling the kick-off. The first ten minutes belonged to the Lions, and the superiority of their pack was already beginning to show. The second of the Lions’ two early penalties came from the Crusaders infringing at the scrum, and at the next scrum the referee had a word with Whitelock to sort it out. This was a massive moment: the Lions pack is easily their most potent weapon, especially at the scrum and lineout, and both worked brilliantly today. Given Warburton didn’t play it is hard to see how he will get his spot back to captain the side. It would be an exaggeration to say that the Lions dominated the scrum – the Crusaders got fired up shortly afterwards and put on an almighty shove to win a penalty of their own – but they certainly got the best of their opponents. George Kruis was superb, and with Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje as options the Lions are extremely well covered in the second row and loose forward positions.
I had written earlier saying how I thought the Crusaders would switch the ball wide one way and then the other, creating huge gaps to exploit as the Blues had done, but this didn’t happen. Why? Well, either Warren Gatland reads this blog or he and his team know a thing or two about rugby instructed his men to deny the Crusaders time and space on the ball. They came up extremely fast in defence and for the first time this season I saw the Crusaders unsettled, if not quite rattled. Both Richie Mo’unga and Luke Romano made unforced errors, something they rarely do in a normal match. The Lions defence, as the score would suggest, was absolutely superb and not only kept the Crusaders out but stopped them playing. This will be important in the tests: there’s no point trying to defend your line against the All Blacks for half and hour, it won’t work. But if you stop them from playing how they want, you get to keep them away from your line.
It wasn’t all good, though. Owen Farrell had a brilliant game, one of the best I’ve seen, and with his kicking it’s hard to see how he can be left out of the side. He is infinitely more mature than he was during his early England days and the last Lions tour and it shows. Ben Te’o was also good as well, and sucked in players.
But a lot of people are also praising Connor Murray and although he did have a good game on some levels, if that had been a test match people would be cursing him. Around the 30 minute mark the Lions were ten or fifteen metres out in a brilliant attacking position with all the momentum, a serious try-scoring opportunity, and his pass went to somebody’s ankles. Thirty seconds later the Crusaders are on the Lions’ line where they are unlucky not to score. The All Blacks would have punished that, and it could well have been the best opportunity for the Lions to score all game.
Unfortunately, this happened several times. Jonathan Davies spilled a ball that a Kiwi probably wouldn’t a few metres out, and when Ben Te’o broke the line brilliantly he flung the ball miles over Liam Williams’ head. Had it gone in front of his chest, Williams would have been in for a try. Anthony Watson made a terrific line break and ran up half the pitch, but timed his pass badly and the ball got dropped a few metres from the tryline. These will be costly, costly mistakes against the All Blacks.
So there is still a lot of work to be done on the basic ball handling, but already it’s a massive improvement from the Lions, the forwards are shaping up to be formidable indeed, and they’ve secured an important win. Let’s hope they can keep this going all the way to the first test.