Six talking points: Lions move it up a gear but more required
Warren Gatland’s side will have to start taking try chances before Test series
The combination of Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell in the 10-12 axis was a huge boost to the Lions after Jonathan Davies was forced off with a head injury. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
This victory was an eloquent rebuttal of accusations that the Lions would descend into a spiral of defeats in tracing a line from last week’s disappointing loss to the Blues through to the Test series. It was a bold statement and one that sets a benchmark for future displays.
Warren Gatland’s tourists went into the backyard of Super Rugby’s best team, the unbeaten Crusaders, and produced a hard-nosed, unrelentingly physical, and at times, sharply cohesive performance against a team that averages five tries a match this season. To keep them to a single penalty would have been rewarded with astronomical odds before the game.
The Lions rode their luck at times but they earned that little bit of good fortune because they created the more clear-cut opportunities, once again undone by a lack of composure and accuracy in those nanoseconds in which the opportunities materialised.
A positive going forward is that at least they are creating chances as opposed to the sterile nature of the attacking gambits in the first two matches. The key now is to take them because they will need to score tries in the Test series if they are to be successful.
The Lions managed to halve last week’s penalty count that proved so debilitating in defeat, conceded seven and a free-kick while forcing the Crusaders to concede appreciably more. There were a couple of fundamentals behind the improvement.
The tourists had the lion’s share both of possession and territory and therefore were able to apply consistent pressure on the home side. As the game wore on the Crusaders became more desperate and that manifest itself in both errors and transgressions.
They also adapted better to the Northern Hemisphere style of refereeing of Mathieu Raynal. The French official was strict with regard to rolling away at the tackle area and the offside line and also very definite when it came to scrum time. He made a decision on which was the dominant scrum, so there were no tit-for-tat penalties.
Contrast his performance with that of Australia’s Angus Gardner in the Blues’ match last week and it’s possible to see the difference in interpretation, depending on which hemisphere in which the official normally officiates.
Andy Farrell deserves credit for the increased line speed in this game that gave the Crusaders less time on the ball and put them under considerable pressure behind the gainline. To do this consistently there has to be excellent communication in the defensive line and there was with the odd exception.
Even when there was a breach of the first line of red shirts, the Lions scrambled effectively to close down the ball carrier and deny him passing or offloading options. As the game wore on the Crusaders kicked more often and that’s because they weren’t able to go through or around their opponents’ defence.
The Lions players showed a great appetite for the contact area and nobody epitomised this more than Johnny Sexton who made a few big tackles and one crucial maul turnover in tandem with his captain Alun Wyn Jones.
A crucial part of this success for the visitors was the ability of the Lions players to compete at the breakdown, thereby slowing down ball. Peter O’Mahony and Seán O’Brien were both quick to get in over the ball and difficult to shift.
Owen Farrell kicked four from five with the placed ball, his re-starts were outstanding and produced well executed diagonal punting. Anthony Watson cleared intelligently after coming on as fullback, while sundry tactical Garryowens were generally well directed but it was Conor Murray’s box-kicking that proved a crucial gambit in the Lions’ success.
The Irish scrumhalf, one or two aside, was inch perfect in this facet of the game, irrespective of whether the Lions chose to contest in the air or not, and that accuracy inspired some nervy knocks-on from the Crusaders’ back three. Murray also put in some very impressive clearances.
A difference from the midweek defeat to the Blues and Saturday’s victory over the Crusaders was the fact that the Lions did create try-scoring chances, the downside proved to be not taking them. It’s a positive step but there’s a leap to be made ahead of the test series.
Jonathan Davies should have found George North with a try-scoring pass, albeit that the wing should have changed his angle to make the transfer slightly easier. Farrell might have been a little kinder in his pass to Davies after the centre had cut a great line.
Ben Te’o threw a ball over Liam Williams and into touch while Watson’s superb break, saw him then link with Sexton but CJ Stander took his eye off his Irish team-mate’s pass, spilling the ball when a try seemed a certainty.
A couple of times Murray failed to find a team-mate with his pass, although the recipient wasn’t always clear from the red-shirted pod of players. Greater communication is required.
It was enforced through injuries to Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Davies but the previously touted Sexton/Farrell hook-up worked effectively for the most part. They mixed and matched in terms of first receiver and first defender but the twin playmaking presence infused the Lions’ back play with greater more nuance and creativity.
Farrell was largely excellent, so too Sexton, with the latter typically combative in defence, forcing one turnover but also throwing in a couple of breaks, while his distribution was top-notch. There was less clutter in front of the outhalf channel – a positive progression from the opening two matches of the tour.
Once again very impressive as the Lions forced four scrum penalties, nicked some Crusaders throws and forced the home side to have to go short at times to secure possession out of touch. Referee Mathieu Raynal took a very definite view on the scrum but that won’t always be the case. The Lions applied pressure, forced transgressions and were then able to dominate territorially as they corralled the home side in their own half for large passages of the game.