Coach Warren Gatland admitted a sense of relief on Saturday as a much-improved British and Irish Lions ended the Canterbury Crusaders’ unbeaten run 12-3 in the best performance of their New Zealand tour.
Owen Farrell kicked all the points as the Lions wasted several try-scoring opportunities but impressed in defence and won the aerial battle to hand the Southern Hemisphere’s leading club their first loss of the season.
The Lions were lacklustre in their first two tour games — including Wednesday’s shock defeat to the Auckland Blues — but Saturday’s performance is likely to make the All Blacks sit up and take notice, two weeks from their three-Test series.
Captain Alun Wyn Jones called it a “confidence-boosting win”, as Gatland singled out the Lions lineout and the tactical kicking of Conor Murray for special praise.
The New Zealander described the victory as “obviously a bit of relief because we’ve been under a bit of pressure”.
But Gatland was not impressed with the number of missed tries which showed his tourists were not yet in form.
“We knocked a couple on, lost a couple, there’s still lots of things for us to work on and improve,” he said.
Jones was also unimpressed with the poor finishing by the outside backs.
“We can be pleased with our defence but we probably have to be a bit more clinical with some of those line breaks, particularly when we get in the 22,” he said.
“But we’re happy with the turnaround. I wouldn’t say we’re back on track, I don’t think we were off track. I think we continued the momentum.”
– Making a statement –
While the Lions could not find the try line they did keep their own line intact, shutting down the famed Crusaders attack, with Farrell pivotal to the transformation.
Together with Murray, he generally kicked short to make the ball contestable, a tactic which caused the Crusaders problems. Apart from one misfired pass which potentially cost Jonathan Davies a try, Farrell’s running game was damaging.
With travel fatigue now out of the system, the Lions needed to make a statement and ironically their cause was helped when Davies went off injured in the first half, allowing Johnny Sexton to take the field as a second playmaker.
In a match viewed as a fourth Test, Gatland fielded his strongest XV of the tour so far, minus injured captain Sam Warburton, and under the alternative leadership of Alun Wyn Jones the Lions took control from the start.
Gatland has always maintained that his focus is winning the Tests, and in a match-up of Test-style intensity his players were not found wanting.
They struggled in the scrums against the All Blacks-laden pack, but that was an area where the Crusaders were frequently penalised, and Peter O’Mahony and Alun Wyn Jones ensured the Lions functioned better at the lineouts.
But for all their possession, the tries did not materialise.
In the first half, a pass to an unmarked George North missed its man, and Davies spilled a bullet pass from Farrell in the shadow of the posts.
In the second half, Liam Williams dropped a difficult pass metres short of the corner post and was also guilty, along with CJ Stander, of knocking the ball on when the Crusaders were in disarray.
With the Tests in mind, the Lions made points a priority and Farrell landed three penalties in the first half to one for the Crusaders by Richie Mo’unga.
The first 30 minutes of the second half were scoreless until Farrell landed his fourth penalty with 10 minutes to play. – Agence France-Presse