Lions end Crusaders’ winning run to make big statement

Owen Farrell slots over four penalties to secure much-needed victory in Christchurch

Lions scrumhalf  Conor Murray is tackled during the tour match against the Crusaders at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire

Lions scrumhalf Conor Murray is tackled during the tour match against the Crusaders at the AMI Stadium in Christchurch. Photograph: David Davies/PA Wire


Crusaders 3 Lions 12

The Lions tour is back on track and no mistake. On a cold, crisp but engrossing night at a packed AMI Stadium, in front of 20,497 spectators, it says everything about the tourists’ performance that for much of the night the home crowd were kept as quiet as their team.

In what was something of a remarkable coaching achievement, the Lions’ cohesion suggested they had been together for weeks, or even months. Their scrum, lineout and maul were all highly efficient, as the props Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong had big nights, as did George Kruis, while Alun Wyn Jones underlined his warrior status by leading from the front all night.

Seán O’Brien was all muscular action and looked almost surprisingly fit for his first game since April 1st, and Peter O’Mahony continually came up with big plays right until the end.

The Lions’ supremacy was especially pronounced at halfback, where Conor Murray and Owen Farrell bossed things and tormented the Crusaders’ backfield players with their vastly superior kicking game.

The pity is that Stuart Hogg lasted barely a quarter of the game, and Jonathan Davies barely half an hour, after each failed HIAs and are thus not likely to play in the next couple of games either.

But out of adversity came more options, among them a Farrell-Johnny Sexton 10-12 combination. This partnership, like Sexton’s display, grew as the night progressed. They had clearly run together in training, or else they’re even better than we thought. They gave the Lions two playmakers and are certainly an option for the last 20 or 30. Furthermore, Hogg’s misfortune meant Anthony Watson had an hour at fullback, his club position and his best position. Secure at the back, his wondrous footwork and creative instincts were also an attacking spark.

Sexton’s arrival meant the Lions lost nothing in defence either, and they kept their shape in attack.

Before kick-off, there was the customary pre-match laps before home games by Crusaders on horseback, and then the home team’s first haka to mark their first hosting of the Lions. On a clear but cold and dewey night, which will be the best conditions the Lions are likely to experience given the night-time kick-offs, there was nonetheless plenty of heat on the pitch.

The first half was tryless but no less compelling for that. Helped by Luke Romano misjudging Farrell’s hanging kick-off, the Lions were quickly onto the offensive, going through the phases, but after taking a good line, Davies’s pass to George North was picked off by the retreating George Bridge.

Furlong make a good carry before Jordan Taufua poached for a turnover penalty, but the Lions were denying the Crusaders any momentum, Vunipola, Taulupe Faletau and Ben Te’o combining for a choke tackle and turnover.

Even when the Crusaders went up the line Codie Taylor overthrew for Farrell to gather. Murray found a couple of good long touchfinders, and made one deft kick and chase up the line.

O’Mahony’s value as a proficient lineout operator, especially on the opposition throw, yielded a steal which in turn led to the opening three-pointer by Farrell when Matt Todd came through high on Te’o. Farrell’s 42-metre penalty opened drew a decent cheer from the Lions supporters.

A huge up-and-under from Farrell, though slightly over kicked, slipped through the arms and fingers of Richie Mo’unga, and at the ensuing scrum Joe Moody was penalised for going to ground. A feather in Furlong’s cap, and Farrell made it 6-0.

Hogg promptly departed though. When replays showed that Hogg had caught Murray’s elbow in chasing his own kick ahead, the crowd chanted ‘off, off’ off’. But the Scottish fullback left groggily, blood pouring from above his left eye to be replaced by Watson.

Todd did make a good line and pass inside to Bryn Hall, and when North went off his feet, Mo’unga opened the Crusaders’ account.

However, a strong lineout maul by the Lions led to Todd being called for offside and Farrell made it 9-3. The Lions were in reasonable control of things.

Temperatures rose on the pitch when the Crusaders pack twisted and drove the Lions pack back at scrum time, shunting their frontrow onto their backs and making the most of the moment and the opportunity. O’Mahony and others took exception, attempting to drag Crusaders forwards off his team-mates, and some Crusaders took exception to that. Pretty much all 30 players became involved, yet the TMO Marius Jonker advised French referee Mathieu Reynal that it was only pushing and shoving.

The Crusaders were always capable of breaking upfield, particularly off turnovers or spilled balls. When they opted to go to the corner, a maul and sequence of drives led to Sexton bravely stepping in as the pillar defender to deny Taylor. The home side went back to the corner from underneath the posts, but when Taufua peeled around the back, Vunipola did enough to dislodge the ball.

By half-time it says everything about the Lions’ performance that the home crowd was hardly a factor.

Upon the resumption, the Lions continued to keep a strong hold on the game, one home fan could be heard to plaintively implore: “C’moooon Crusaders.”

And suddenly the Crusaders did come alive. From a deep lineout, Jack Goodhue stepped Farrell and broke clear. Murray made up yards and made a despairing hand trip, injuring himself in the process, as Goodhue chipped ahead for Bridge, who couldn’t hold onto the slippery and bouncing ball.

The Lions’ scrum and lineout, and Murray’s boot brought them back upfield. Going through the phases, Watson hit the line to release Williams. He chipped and contested, the ball breaking for Watson to step Dagg and finish but after recourse to the video the TMO, it was decided that the ball had been knocked forward by the Welsh winger.

The Lions had chances to pull two scores clear, and aside from try-scoring chances, Farrell had another penalty from a scrum ruled out although he thought it had gone inside the line of the left upright.

The threat always remained with a one-score lead, and the Lions were briefly in trouble off a turnover, before good pressure defence by Sexton and an intercept by North saw them safe. Murray found a fine touch, as did Dagg going the other way.

And then the Farrell-Sexton axis struck. With the right to left move drifting a little, Sexton cleverly switched back inside and broke through, before delaying his pass and then linking deftly with Te’o, who gave Williams another run. Murray and Jones had darts, which was enough to draw the Crusaders offside and Farrell’s penalty finally gave the Lions the two-score lead which their performance deserved.

By the end, none of the Crusaders back three could take a high ball, and as the Crusaders vainly sought to run the ball from deep in the final minute, chants of “LI-ONS” echoed around the ground. Cue the Lions’ lap of honour, or at any rate lap of acknowledgement. There’ll be plenty more fans to come, and perhaps more performances like this too.

This tour is on.

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: Israel Dagg; Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, George Bridge; Richie Mo’unga, Bryn Hall; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks; Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock (capt); Heiden Bedwell-Curtis, Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua.

Replacements: Ben Funnell for Taylor, Wyatt Crockett for Moody, Michael Alaalatoa for Franks (all 51 mins), Quinten Strange for Romano (56 mins), Jed Brown, Mitchell Drummond for Hall (62 mins), Mitchell Hunt for Mo’unga (75 mins), Tim Bateman for Bridge (66 mins),

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland), George North (Northampton Saints, Wales), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Ben Te’o (Worcester Warriors, England), Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Owen Farrell (Saracens, England) Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England), Jamie George (Saracens, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland); Alun Wyn Jones (capt, Ospreys, Wales), George Kruis (Saracens, England); Peter O’Mahony (Munster, Ireland), Sean O’Brien (Leinster, Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales).

Replacements: Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England) for Hogg (20 mins), Johnny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland) for Davies (28 mins), CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland) for O’Brien (56 mins), Jack McGrath (Leinster, Ireland) for Vunipola, Maro Itoje (Saracens, England) for Kruis (both 62 mins), Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales) for George, Dan Cole (Leicester, England) for Furlong (both 66 mins).

Not used: Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales).

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

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