For the first 29 minutes of the All Blacks’ only warm-up match against Samoa, the British and Irish Lions will have been lifted in their hopes of securing a first series win in New Zealand in 46 years. By the end of it, there were 78 reasons why they will have been left wondering if it’s all really worth it.
That’s not an estimation of the morale in the Lions camp, but more the rugby that the All Blacks are capable of playing in both attack and defence.
When Anton Lienert-Brown found himself catching a Beauden Barrett offload on the Samoan try line, he will not have believed his luck, and he probably won’t score an easier try in the long All Blacks career he looks to have ahead of him based on this performance. That was in the 13th minute. That Samoa had the next two big chances will have been of great solace for the Lions, given the Pacific Islanders were able to cut through gaps in the New Zealand defence, first through the Chiefs wing Tim Nanai-Williams and secondly through centre Alapati Leuia.
Neither came to fruition as the All Blacks were able to turn the ball over both times, and when Beauden Barrett finished a beautifully flowing move that went through the hands of Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and eventually Barrett on the half-hour mark, the floodgates opened.
50 minutes later, the All Blacks had piled a total of 78 points onto the long-defeated Samoans, who had not scored a single one in return. If the All Blacks were rusty, as head coach Steve Hansen put it earlier in the week, it did not take them long to move through the gears and deliver a fierce warning to the Lions.
In total, there were 12 tries, all of which came as a result of moments of brilliance as the All Blacks ran riot across the pitch and that harboured the much-talked-about X-factor that Warren Gatland has demanded from his squad. Both Ardia Savea, the younger and possibly more talented brother of wing Julian, had extended the lead to 28-0 by half-time, and the pain that Samoa were only just starting to experience would multiply significantly after the break.
Like the great white sharks found off the eastern coast of New Zealand, the All Blacks scented blood and went for the kill. Barrett and Savea added their second tries, though it would be Israel Dagg that got the second-half party off to a flying start with a try in less than two minutes.
There could be plenty to write about each try, but what was most striking was that the Northern Hemisphere’s attentions have been focused on the wrong centre. Much has been made of Sonny Bill Williams’ return to the side for the first time since the 2015 Rugby World Cup final, but it was the man outside him, Anton Lienert-Brown, that was doing the damage and justifying Hansen’s decision to leave Malakai Fekitoa out of the squad completely.
By the time that the replacement and debutant, Vaea Fifita, has crossed for the seventh try in the 62nd minute, the Samoans had completely gone in mindset as well as in the game. There was hope that the Lions would not wilt under pressure quite like the Pacific Islanders, but then that is not the challenge facing Gatland’s side. The challenge is beating them, and when they play like this you wonder if it can really be done.
Hansen selected Highlanders scrum-half Aaron Smith to start this match ahead of the in-form TJ Perenara, but in the end they proved that either one could have started and the score would have still been the same. Perenara came on with a point to prove, and he benefited from fellow replacement Lima Sopoaga’s break and offload to canter over the line, with Julian Savea and flanker Sam Cane sealing the victory with tries No 11 and 12. That Sopoaga missed the final conversion spoiled a perfect point-to-minute ratio, although referee Mathieu Raynal ensured he was the villain of the night as he chalked off a last-play score when Williams was judged to have passed the ball forwards to Perenara – who gifted Sopoaga the try by passing to him on the line without a defender inside the 22.
What the Lions realistically take from this result is mixed. Yes, it is an emphatic scoreline and the fact that Samoa could not muster a single point in 80 minutes. But this will not have been the perfect preparation for the All Blacks, and while they escaped without any injuries, they have not been tested ahead of their first meeting with the Lions.
New Zealand: Ben Smith (Jordie Barrett, 63); Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea; Beauden Barrett (Lima Sopoanga, 61), Aaron Smith (TJ Perenara, 56); Joe Moody (Wyatt Crockett, 51), Codie Taylor (Nathan Harris, 63), Owen Franks (Charlie Faumuina, 51); Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock (Scott Barrett, 51); Jerome Kaino (Vaea Fifita, 56), Sam Cane, Ardie Savea.
Samoa: Ah See Tuala; Albert Nikoro (Ken Pisi, 56), Kieron Fonotia, Alapati Leiua, Tim Nanai-Williams; Tusi Pisi (D’Angelo Leuila, 62), Kahn Fotuali’i (Dwayne Polataivao, 74); Viliamu Afatia (Nephi Leatigaga, 69), Ma’atulimanu Leiataua (Seilala Lam, 61), Census Johnston (Paul Alo-Emile, 51); Chris Vui, Fa’atiga Lemalu; Piula Fa’asalele, Fa’alemiga Selesele (Alafoti Faosiliva, 59), Faifili Levave.
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