The Lions have gone down to the Blues 16-22 in an entertaining game that underlined just how tough this tour is going to be for them.
After an underwhelming tour opener against the NZ Provincial Barbarians, the Lions arrived at Eden Park knowing they’d need to put up a considerably better performance to silence their many (& mostly British) critics.
Lions coach Gatland changed his entire starting XV from Whangarei but had already said he’d give all 41 players a start in the first three games so speculation of early panic were a little wide of the mark. That said he was audibly testy during and after a midweek presser, a still-live mic picking up several f-bombs as he left the stage.
The Blues preparations suffered a late disruption with the dropping of lock Patrick Tuipolutu for being late for training on Monday. The plan to rest key players from their Super Rugby match with the Reds in Apia was otherwise unaffected by injury and coach Tana Umaga was able to name seven All Blacks in his match day 23.
After a rousing, specially composed haka, the Blues had to withstand several minutes of sustained Lions pressure including having a wayward pass toed into the in-goal but going dead before it could be forced. The Blues worked their way upfield and after six minutes rookie 5/8 Stephen Perofeta, still eligible for the Under-20’s, threw a peach of a pass for his winger Reiko Ioane to sprint to the line, Blues 5-0.
Perofeta was the hero again minutes later, taking Lions centre Jared Payne into touch centimetres from the goal line after the Lions had worked over the defensive line and created an overlap. They were back in the Blues 22 shortly after courtesy of some strong midfield carries and a penalty they could have kicked but chose the lineout drive. A second kickable penalty immediately followed but again the Lions took the lineout and this time CJ Stander was at the back of the drive as it crossed the line, fullback Leigh Halfpenny converting for 7-5 after 19 minutes.
The Lions won a kicking duel to force a lineout inside the Blues 22, then a scrum 15m out from which a penalty was won and duly kicked by Halfpenny for 10-5. A muddling period of play followed in which the Lions put in some incontestable kicks that the Blues failed to capitalise on with poor handling.
Deep into overtime a Perofeta penalty struck the woodwork, rebounding into the field of play and after an aerial contest ending up back in-goal where Sonny Bill Williams forced it. After multiple replays TMO Marius Jonker ruled that a Lions hand had propelled it back rather than a Blues hand forward. Perofeta added the extras.
Half time: Blues 12-10 Lions
The opening stanza of the second half saw Reiko Ioane bundled out in a similar location to Payne in the first half, and a Blues overlap wasted by a pass to a player not expecting and in no position to take it. Replacement Blues 5/8 Ihaia West got the scoreboard moving after 52 minutes with a penalty to stretch the Blues lead to 15-10.
Lions replacement wing Liam Williams was penalised for taking his opposite Matt Duffie out in the air, then yellow carded for doing it again less than five minutes later, leaving the Lions a man down for ten of the final 22 minutes. A knock on in midfield 22 metres out compounded their woes, but a forward pass to Reiko Ioane saved them any further indignity.
The temporary loss of Williams did no real harm, though, Halfpenny cutting the deficit to 13-15 after the Blues infringed at a ruck right in front. Further indiscipline from the Blues quickly had the Lions back on attack and winning a scrum penalty against the feed, Halfpenny regaining the lead at 16-15 with ten minutes to go.
Out of nowhere Blues No. 8 Stephen Luatua made a midfield break near halfway, feeding SBW who offloaded to West for a jinking run to the posts. He added the extras and suddenly it was the Lions chasing the game and unable to rely on Halfpenny’s boot to get them home.
A wobbly West clearing penalty gave the Lions some late hope when the Blues were penalised attempting to run down the clock, but the throw to set up a potential match-winning lineout drive went astray and the Blues cleared to secure a famous 22-16 victory.
For the Blues: tries R Ioane, SB Williams, I West; conv S Perofeta, I West; pen I West
For the Lions: try CJ Stander; conv L Halfpenny; pen L Halfpenny (3).
This was a match the Lions needed to win, not just to silence the critics but for their own self-confidence. Previous Lions tours have fallen apart after early setbacks and the pressure will now be on to get things back on track against the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday.