NEW ZEALAND 30 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 15
For an hour, this was an epic occasion and contest. The Lions confirmed their rapid progression over the last three weeks and, as vowed, gave it an almighty go. But the mighty All Blacks still pulled away to win quite comfortably.
In truth, the Lions were on the ropes when, inspired by Liam Williams, they counter-punched to brilliant effect nearing half-time. It's a try that stands up to repeated viewings. Ironically, Williams' initial instinct was to kick, but he was forced into counter-attacking by the pressure from Kieran Read and then Aaron Cruden.
Williams used his footwork to step Read. See you later. Even the great man was beaten all ends up. He then had the pace to veer outside Cruden and straighten inside the despairing Sonny Bill Williams. He had the presence to slow down, take the tackle and offload to the supporting Jonathan Davies, who linked with Elliot Daly.
Crucially, Daly accelerated and swivelled to get mostly around Anton Lienart-Brown and pass back inside to Davies, who had the awareness to spin in the tackle, drawing three men toward him, before offloading for O’Brien. He’d run a long and vintage openside support line.
There was more where that came from.
When Williams led another daring counter-attack after Tadhg Furlong and Peter O'Mahony had forced a spillage from SBW in contact, Davies was again involved twice after fending off Lienart-Brown, this time exchanging passes with Murray. Another brilliant try beckoned, before Williams and Watson were tackled short of the line. The All Blacks' scramble defence is also the best in the world, and helped by subtle nudging off the ball.
From the recycle, if Ben Te'o passed to O'Brien, the Irish flanker had a two-on-one against SBW with Toby Faletau on his outside. Instead, Te'o cut back in and slipped. Faletau can be seen to slap his hands in frustration.
To level at 13-13 then, with the conversion to come would, as Warren Gatland said afterwards, have made the game interesting. Instead Farrell, having already missed the conversion to O’Brien’s try, went to the corner without reward.
The Lions had other chances in the first half too, when the All Blacks were indebted to try-saving tackles on Elliot Daly by Israel Dagg and Ryan Crotty.
Soon after, Anthony Watson undid his brilliant break when beating four players after a switch with Williams, only to force an offload which went forward.
Yet, there was no doubting the All Blacks were the better team, and also the more clinical. In many ways too, their second try which doused the Lions’ fire off that fateful 55th scrum was every bit as skilful.
They were actually playing for a penalty with a devastating secondary shove at a scrum, but that also gave them a free play. From Read's wondrous scoop, Aaron Smith linked and stepped in one movement, Dagg stepped Davies and popped a one-handed overhead pass to Cruden, whose pass invited Reiko Ioane to score in the corner.
As ever, the All Blacks brains trust had a good day at the office too, albeit it helps when they have the best players in the world to deliver on the game plan.
Here, they sought to negate the Lions’ defensive line speed all the more so after the break when continually charging onto passes from Smith in with passages of one-off runners, or even inside balls. It took the Lions’ speed off the line outside out of the game.
They also may have scored some points before the game.
Gatland having made his case regarding the use of 'blockers', it wouldn't be a wild guess to suggest that Hansen, in his pre-game meeting with Peyper, stressed the need for all three officials to watch for the Lions' stepping off the line too quickly. The tourists were penalised three times for offside, with contributions from Jerome Garces and Romain Poite, the referees for the next two matches.
The All Blacks didn't negate Conor Murray's kick-game at source, much though they tried. Indeed, his aerial kicks were as pinpoint as ever, had ample hang time and with Ben Smith spilling a couple, they gave the Lions early inroads into the game before Beauden Barrett moved to fullback with seamless efficiently.
Ultimately too, the All Blacks' bench had the bigger impact than the Lions' save for Maro Itoje, whose aggression off the line and in contact did more than anyone to stem the flow of home attacks.
Peyper incurred the on-field disquiet and frustrations of a quartet of Irish players, Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien, Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, perhaps a legacy of his poor performances when Ireland played France in the 2016 Six Nations and the Ireland-New Zealand rematch in the Aviva Stadium last November.
“I think the players were frustrated at the breakdown and frustrated that they felt they had got on the ball at times,” said Gatland. “I spoke to Sean O’Brien afterwards and he was frustrated, he felt they were getting three seconds opportunity on the ball defensively and felt they were given a lot more chance to clear it.”
The advent of two French referees for the final two games will be welcomed by the Lions.
“We’ve been happy with the French referees in terms of that. The good thing is that they don’t speak English so they’re probably not so influenced by the media. They just go out and do what’s in front of them. We can’t be bringing the referee into it. We’ve got to fix things up ourselves.”
But, while he’s an irritating referee, and it was no great surprise that the Lions fell on the wrong side of him with an 11-7 penalty count, it cannot be said that he had a significant impact on the result.
Scoring sequence: 14 mins Barrett pen 3-0; 18 mins Taylor try, Barrett con 10-0; 31 mins Farrell pen 10-3; 34 mns Barrett pen 13-3; 36 mins O'Brien try 13-8; (half-time 13-8); 55 mins Ioane try, Barrett con 20-8; 61 mins Barrett pen 23-8; 70 mins Ioane try, Barrett con 30-8; 82 mins Webb try, Farrell con 30-15.
NEW ZEALAND: Ben Smith (Highlanders); Israel Dagg (Crusaders), Ryan Crotty (Crusaders), Sonny Bill Williams (Blues), Rieko Ioane (Blues); Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Highlanders); Joe Moody (Crusaders), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs) Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Sam Cane (Chiefs), Kieran Read (Crusaders, captain). Replacements: Aaron Cruden (Chiefs) for B Smith (27 mins), Anton Lienert-Brown (Chiefs) for Crotty (33 mins), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes) for Kaino (47 mins), Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders) for Moody, Charlie Faumuina (Blues) for Franks (both 54 mins), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes) for A Smith (56 mins), Nathan Harris (Chiefs) for Taylor (67 mins), Scott Barrett (Crusaders) for Read (77 mins).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Liam Williams (Scarlets, Wales); Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, England), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets, Wales), Ben Te'o (Worcester Warriors, England), Elliot Daly (Wasps, England); Owen Farrell (Saracens, England), Conor Murray (Munster, Ireland); Mako Vunipola (Saracens, England,) Jamie George (Saracens, England), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster, Ireland), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, Wales), George Kruis (Saracens, England), Peter O'Mahony (Munster, Ireland, captain), Sean O'Brien (Leinster, Ireland), Taulupe Faletau (Bath Rugby, Wales).
Replacements: Maro Itoje (Saracens, England) for Jones (48 mins), Jack McGrath (Leinster, Ireland) for Vunipola (52 mins), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues, Wales) for O'Mahony (54 mins), Johnny Sexton (Leinster, Ireland) for Te'o (58 mins), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins, England) for Furlong (59 mins), Ken Owens (Scarlets, Wales) for George, Rhys Webb (Ospreys, Wales) for Murray (both 68 mins), Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon, Wales) for Williams (72 mins).
Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa).