Powerful setpiece play of Lions proves too much for Maoris
Lions starting XV against Maoris helps nail down bulk of match-day squad for first test
Jonathan Sexton is tackled during the match between the New Zealand Maori and the British and Irish Lions in Rotorua, New Zealand, on Saturday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
New Zealand Maori 10
British and Irish Lions 32
Opportunity knocked for the Lions starting XV in Rotorua on Saturday, and in almost every combination and area of the game they grasped both it and the Maori by the scruff of the neck.
In the process they assuredly nailed down the bulk of the team and match-day squad for the first test next Saturday in Eden Park.
Maybe the weather helped, for the Lions were the rain masters, but even so this was an impressive statement of intent, most obviously from the unrelentingly powerful setpiece play of the pack, but also in the accuracy of their breakdown work, a thick red line that conceded only one line break.
Maybe you had to be there to fully appreciate the tingling sense of occasion and the way the Lions subdued both a fired up Maori team and the majority in the 28,000 sell-out crowd.
In the first 40 minutes the lead exchanged hands four times, and there was never more than a score between them, and for all but five minutes there was less than three points.
Then the Lions squeezed the life out of a talented Maori side, who possibly did not help themselves by shifting Damien McKenzie and James Lowe to less familiar and more ill-fitting out-half and full-back roles.
For the most part the damage was done up front, and the points accrued in the second half – as so often happens – were in part from the heavy defensive load heaped upon the Maori in the first-half and then increasingly so from the start of the second.
A striking feature of this carefully managed tour is how the three sets of front-rows have operated almost independently. Here the Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Tadgh Furlong front-row were again in potent unison as they had been off the bench against the Provincial Barbarians and from the off against the Crusaders. The manner they turned the screw at scrum time, earning the tour’s first penalty try, ensured they will start against the All Blacks.
George Kruis’ game time has matched them almost identically, and alongside him Maro Itoje partnered his clubmate with a monstrous 80 minutes of unstinting carrying, tackling and clearing out. He has put huge pressure on Alun Wyn Jones for a starting spot.
The Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau combination backed up their cumulative performance against the Crusaders with an even more impressive effort here. O’Brien’s work rate was akin to Itoje’s in its energy and effectiveness, and ditto Faletau, along with his footwork and restart returns.
They look good to go again next Saturday, with O’Mahony’s credentials to captain the first team enhanced not only by his typically gritty performance, but by his captaincy too. As an aside, he developed a good, respectful relationship with Jaco Payper, almost referring to him as sir.
The penalty count was 15-4 to the Lions.
“I think we took the legs away from the Maori team in terms of the power we demonstrated up front,” said Gatland. “The big difference for us and what’s been significant for those two big wins last night and against the Crusaders was our discipline.
“What’s put us under pressure in other games were soft penalties, and giving penalties away. Our penalty count has been 12, 15 and that gives the opposition teams territory and momentum, a platform to attack from lineouts. And our discipline was so good last night, apart from one or two penalties that were avoidable– it was also good against the Crusaders. That’s been a significant part in terms of our performance and enabling us to change the game.”
At his best
Behind the pack not only was Conor Murray at his best, but so too Johnny Sexton. Owen Farrell may well start next Saturday.
“He could have played on Saturday,” said Gatland. “If it was a Test match he would have played. We just made a decision that it wasn’t worth taking that risk. It’s a quad strain that was very high and it’s not on his kicking leg – it’s on his left leg. I’ve no doubt that he will be 100 per cent fit for the first test. He will train tomorrow.’
Sexton’s game was the best out-half performance of the tour. No question.
“Good. Good,” was how Gatland described Sexton’s 80 minutes. “As I’ve said, I thought he started the tour really ropey. I was pretty disappointed with the way he played for Leinster in that semi-final. It was not a typical Johnny Sexton performance, and in the BaaBaas game it didn’t go particularly well for him and he seemed to lack a bit of confidence.
“But coming on against the Crusaders and on Saturday, he has come back and played well. Generally his kicking game has been pretty good, he attacked the line, put us into some holes and he played flat too, which was better compared to Damian McKenzie, who tended to play pretty deep. We are really happy with him.’
Gatland’s complaint about the New Zealand tactic of blocking runners off the ball was in the context of the Lions midfield, and the possibility of playing Farrell and Sexton in tandem.
Looked the part
“We could go that way, we could potentially change and do that during the match as well. We haven’t sat down and discussed, and we’ll wait til Wednesday. We’ve got an idea in our heads.”
Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies looked the part, each making the breaks of the night when they were in hard currency (the Lions making three to one), but as Gatland maintained, the back three and the utility back on the bench is still not clear cut, with the Chiefs game providing Elliot Daly with a big opportunity.
That said, it would be no surprise if another combination from last Saturday, that of Anthony Watson, Leigh Halfpenny and, if more on his previous than current body of work, George North, starts the first test as well.