British & Irish Lions 12
Conor Murray is back. He looked the part virtually from the off, one towering box kick from inside the 22 curved into touch on almost the half-way line. Another along the right touchline, with no angle, found an almost impossible touch inside the Crusaders' half. Murray had that familiar light-on-his-feet bounce in his step.
A sprightly chip and chase up the left wing off a quick tap was typical of his innate footballing abilities and, hence, his trademark composure in open play when away from the basic duties of scrumhalf play. But on a cold, crisp, tryless but absorbing night in Christchurch, it was his basics that left the most indelible imprint on a packed AMI Stadium.
Murray complemented his exit kicks with a rich array of attacking up-and-under for his wingers to chase (albeit they didn't compete in the air as much as Warren Gatland would have liked) and one long touchfinder off turnover ball. Of the Lions' 32 kicks in open play, 17 were by Murray – more than Owen Farrell (seven) and the rest of the team put together, and more than any other other player on the pitch. In tandem with Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton, he bossed it.
He also mixed his game nicely, with 79 passes, seven runs which yielded 32 metres, including one clean line break, and made nine tackles. A caveat was a couple of skewed left to right passes – a possible consequence of that nerve issue in his left arm which sidelined him for two months.
Nevertheless his influence (along with a few other heavy-hitters) on the Lions’ best performance so far was profound. It prompted Graham Henry to tell RadioLiveNZ that Murray is currently the best halfback in the world.
For large, large tracts of this game, the Lions (who had 57 per cent possession and 62 per cent territory) were in control, and found a better balance between kicking and running. They lost Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Davies to failed HIAs in the first-half but with that adversity came options.
Anthony Watson’s footwork and pace are better suited to fullback, even if his kicking isn’t, while Sexton’s third game in eight days saw him play his way into form.
Sexton and the commanding Farrell dovetailed seamlessly and with increasing effectiveness, Sexton making seven carries and ten tackles in what was also a full-on contribution.
“It was a good night in terms of game management,” said Murray. “The conditions dictated the way you played. Johnny (Sexton) came on early and obviously the relationship is there. Playing a bit more with Owen Farrell is great too. We’ve got great options at 10 with Dan (Biggar) there too.”
The performance of a Lions pack which looked and played like much of the Test pack, at scrum time and especially lineout cum maul, along with their breakdown work, helped his performance no end.
“You are kicking on your own terms,” admitted Murray. “People go after your breakdown when you are trying to kick and they made that solid. I don’t think we got shoved off a ball, in terms of counter-rucking, all night. I could kick with relatively little pressure. Fantastic. The lads that came on added impact as well, gave us front-foot ball. When CJ (Stander) came on, it gave us a good carry round the corner, an opportunity to attack and we made a line break off that.”
There were big games from the front-rowers and the locks – George Kruis lording the lineout and Alun Wyn Jones underlining his warrior spirit – and what Warren Gatland called “world-class footwork” from Taulupe Faletau, who had a monster game, with 13 carries and 12 tackles.
Sean O'Brien looked strikingly fit, and Gatland also referenced the flanker's "chat, leadership and experience", while Peter O'Mahony brought his lineout skills as well as his Munster mongrel to bear.
“He’s a happy man at the moment, and a close friend of mine,” said Murray. “I’ve seen the tough times he’s been through. He worked incredibly hard to get back in the picture. I can see it in him, he is not just happy to be here. He is another one who really wants a Test place. He is pushing himself. He’s on the computers a lot. You can see it in him. Like for most people, competition really is red hot, and he is relishing it.”
As well as playing in the right areas, Murray also referenced discipline, and after conceding 29 penalties in their first two games, the penalty count was 10-7 in the Lions' favour here. The line speed and tackle execution was high quality. Take a bow Andy Farrell. The hitherto free-scoring Crusaders had previously averaged 37 points per game.
Although Gatland had described it as a tough week, Murray said that was not particularly the case for the players.
“Not really. I think the coaches would be aware of that more so. They try and keep that away from us. After a loss like that, and in a rugby-mad country, there is going to be criticism. We knew that coming down here. We are prepared for that and willing to accept that. We want to win games; when you lose you have to take it on the chin and move on. We are all experienced enough that if you lose, you know there’s going to be criticism and it’s about how you deal with that. With the type of players and characters we have, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.”
Lack of tries
If there was a collective caveat, it was assuredly the lack of tries. Thus far, there has only been two in three games here, and the Lions were unable to finish several chances.
Hence, they failed to convert 13 line breaks to five into the invaluable currency of tries. It would be worse, admittedly, if they weren’t creating chances.
“It’s something we’ll look to improve on,” said Murray. “But the fact that we are making line-breaks and busting teams and we counter-attacked well off a few kick receipts is really pleasing and then it’s probably the easier stuff – easier than making the line-breaks is finishing them off. If we weren’t making line-breaks, you’d be more worried. But it is something that is progressing. The night, the slippery ball, the slippery surface dictates the way you play a bit. I thought we managed it quite well. Hopefully we’ll start finishing a few.”
Scoring sequence: 13 mins Farrell pen 0-3; 16 mins Farrell pen 0-6; 25 mins Mo'unga pen 3-6; 31 mins Farrell pen 3-9; (half-time 3-9); 71 mins Farrell pen 3-12.
CRUSADERS: I Dagg; S Tamanivalu, J Goodhue, D Havili, G Bridge; R Mo'unga, B Hall; J Moody, C Taylor, O Franks, L Romano, S Whitelock (capt), H Bedwell-Curtis, M Todd, J Taufua. Replacements: B Funnell for Taylor, W Crockett for Moody, M Alaalatoa for Franks (all 51 mins), Q Strange for Romano (56 mins), J Brown, M Drummond for Hall (62 mins), T Bateman for Bridge (66 mins), M Hunt for Mo'unga (75 mins).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: S Hogg (Scot), G North (Wal), J Davies (Wal), B Te'o (Eng), L Williams (Wal); O Farrell (Eng) C Murray (Ire); M Vunipola (Eng), J George (Eng), T Furlong (Ire), A W Jones (capt, Wal), G Kruis (Eng), P O'Mahony (Ire), S O'Brien (Ire), T Faletau (Wal). Replacements: A Watson (Eng) for Hogg (20 mins), J Sexton (Ire) for Davies (28 mins), CJ Stander (Ire) for O'Brien (56 mins), J McGrath (Ireland) for Vunipola, M Itoje (England) for Kruis (both 62 mins), K Owens (Wal) for George, D Cole (Eng) for Furlong (both 66 mins).
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).