British and Irish Lions 2017: All Blacks teach tourists a lesson in why they're the best in the world

New Zealand seized their opportunities to score at the most vital of times in Auckland

Jack de Menezes
Auckland
Saturday 24 June 2017 12:39
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The likes of Beauden Barrett know exactly how to win a Test match
The likes of Beauden Barrett know exactly how to win a Test match

The feeling at the end of 80 gruelling minutes was that the British and Irish Lions had their chance to knock New Zealand onto the ropes, and paid the price for wasting their chances like a prizefighter boxer who had turned down an open shot at his weary opponent.

When Liam Williams and Elliot Daly combined for the second time to break from their own half, there was the feeling that the Lions had weathered the storm and were seizing control of a pulsating first Test at Eden Park.

However, like a seasoned champion, the All Blacks rallied and showed exactly why they are the undisputed kings of rugby and, come the final bell, you wondered what it would take to beat this side.

The Lions could at least leave Auckland with their heads held high. They brought the expansive attacking rugby that the All Blacks are so renowned for and used it to hurt the world champions in their own back yard. When Williams, Daly and Jonathan Davies linked up to send Sean O’Brien over for one of the great tries of Lions rugby, the stadium was brought to its feet and even those wearing black knew they had seen something special.

But while the Lions were certainly surprising in this aspect, they were disappointing in the areas they had hoped to dominate. There was no set-piece advantage, with the All Blacks tight-five gaining the ascendancy that resulted in another demolished scrum midway through the second half that produced a try for the dangerous wing Rieko Ioane.

The defensive line speed that squeezed the life out of the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks was not quite there either, though that appeared to be a two-fold problem. The Lions were not getting off their line to confront the ball carriers, but they were also being put on the back foot by brilliant forward play from Kieran Read and the rest of his pack. New Zealand’s front eight were getting over the gainline with every carry, clearing the ruck quickly and cleanly and giving scrum-half Aaron Smith all the time he needed to work his magic in what was one of his much better performance this season.

When the Lions stepped on the gas in the first 10 minutes of the second half, the thousands wearing red that lit up Eden Park will have been optimistic – and almost expectant – that a first Test victory over New Zealand in 24 years was within reach. But there is a reason why the All Blacks have not lost here in Auckland since 1994, and they went from fifth to sixth gear in a 15-minute period that beat Warren Gatland’s side into submission.

Lions tour diary: Lions lose first test match to All Blacks

Both Gatland and his old adversary, Steve Hansen, looked to get most of their decisions right. However, Gatland got one glaring pick wrong, with Alun Wyn Jones looking distinctively off the pace from the get-go, and with Maro Itoje not brought on until after half-time, an opportunity to find that scrum dominance may have gone begging. It’s almost impossible to see the starting line-up next weekend not featuring the England youngster.

The other issues Gatland had were not as influential, but were still visible. Williams and Daly were brilliant at times, but when TJ Perenara’s box-kick was not taken by the former, you wondered if the game on Tuesday against the Chiefs had taken too much out of them.

Hansen meanwhile brought Read back despite the No 8 not playing in two months, and he was rewarded with one of the captain’s greatest displays when wearing the Silver Fern. However, he also brought Ryan Crotty back from injury, and the Crusaders centre limped out of the match after half an hour with a hamstring injury that looks to have come from being inactive for the last three weeks.

But all-in-all, the coaches looked to have got most of their key decisions right. The difference was that in the pack, it was Read who outshone Taulupe Faletau, Brodie Retallick who edged Jones and Owen Franks who got the better of Mako Vunipola. The Lions lost one too many individual battles, and when that happens to a side of New Zealand’s calibre, there’s not much you can do than hold your hands up and admit they were the better side.

Now, the Lions just need to hope they have an off day in Wellington next Saturday.

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