This weekend the Lions tour to New Zealand reaches is climax, with everything in the balance at 1-1, we review the tour so far. The highs, the lows and memorable moments
New Zealand Barbarians, Whangarei
After a long season the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh contingent made their way to the land of the long white cloud. The tour was underway after an unconvincing win over the New Zealand Barbarians in Whangarei, England’s Ben Te’o, Kyle Sinkler and Wales Ross Moriarty and Taulupe Faletau were the stand out performers despite suffering from jet lag. The Barbarians brought the game to the Lions, desperate to make their mark against the best internationals Britain and Ireland had to offer. If not for the bench impact and a late Anthony Watson try, the first game and early tour hopes would have been lost.
This was the first and last time Moriarty would feature on tour, picking up a back injury. The injury was somewhat speculatively picked up after a five hour car journey to a community visit, which resulted in back spasms that ended the 17 times capped Welshman’s tour.
The Blues, Auckland
The following Wednesday the first midweek fixture took place in Auckland against the Blues and with it the Lions first loss. Four test starters featured in this game, Maro Itoje, Jonathan Sexton, Liam Williams and Elliot Daly. The Lions seemed to have ground out a closely fought win. Until a 74th minute match winning try set up by Steven Luatua and Sonny Bill Williams offloads to allow Ihia West to score from 30 meters out. The media and fans responded to the loss by criticising the lack of attacking intent, with a blitz defence the only positive to come from the loss. One from two, the tourists made their way to Christchurch to face leading Super Rugby side the Crusaders.
In the first Saturday match, a starting lineup including 10 test starters overcame the Crusaders in a 12-3 win. This win proved to be Stuart Hoggs second and final match on tour. An accidental elbow to the face from teammate Conor Murray resulted in Hogg suffering a fractured cheek bone early in the first half. In a match featuring no tries, the Lions showcased the importance of a solid defence, dominant scrum and kicking accuracy at test level. At an average of 4.9 tries in 2017, the Lions impressed by keeping the Christchurch side scoreless, a feat they would need to reproduce to overcome the All Blacks in the final test at Eden Park.
In the second midweek fixture, the Lions took on the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr, Dunedin. Tour captain Sam Warburton was the only test starter in the starting lineup, making his second appearance on tour following a medial knee injury. The Lions scored the most tries in a match so far on tour, with Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour and Warburton crossing the white wash. However, this was not enough to conquer the Dunedin side, a 23 point haul featuring tries from Waisaki Naholo and Liam Coltman helped the Highlanders to victory. Trailing by one point at 78 minutes, Elliot Daly stepped up to attempt a 50m penalty that dropped short of the bars, with it the second loss on tour.
Maori All Blacks, Rotorua
A week before the first test, head coach Gatland named a side many believed to be the starting lineup for the following weekend in Auckland. The Lions side, lead by captain Peter O’Mahony, earned their third victory on tour, making it 3 from 5. Man of the series from the 2013 tour to Australia, Leigh Halfpenny kicked 20 points out of 32 in the second convincing series victory. If not for a George North fumble, the Maori side would have been left scoreless as the Crusaders were a week earlier.
In the final game before the first test came the largest winning margin on tour so far, over the Chiefs in Waikato. The victory was somewhat overshadowed by the call up of 6 players from the Welsh and Scottish tours to the Pacific Island sides and Australia. The controversy of players called up due to their locality and not playing merit caused the 34-6 win to fall out of the spot light. Nevertheless, a key win in the series, with the Lions showing their ability to score four tries. Liam Williams and Elliot daly were seemingly included in the test sides as a reward for their attacking prowess, whether predetermined or not it proved a smart decision from the coaching staff
All Blacks, Eden Park Auckland – The First Test
Feelings were mixed ahead of the first test, the Lions defence had impressed but the attack had been found lacking. The inclusion of Williams at fullback and Daly on the wing gave hope to an exciting counter attack seen four days earlier in Waikato. Williams produced exactly that, setting the spark that culminated with possibly the greatest try in Lions history, combining with Daly, Jonathan Davies and Sean O’Brien. Despite this attacking display, captain O’Mahony’s side weren’t able to finish off their chances as clinically as their All Black counterparts.
The Cody Taylor try summed up the difference between the two sides. Identification of an opportunity culminating with a front rower collecting a pass from his show laces to dot down in the corner was exactly the kind of vision and basic skill execution that put the Lions to the sword in the 30-15 defeat. One midweek match remained, with test hopefuls still fighting for their shot at test involvement.
Warren Gatland and his men were welcomed to Wellington to play the first of two games of the week at the ‘cake tin’. The final of the midweek fixtures, the coaching team would have been watching closely to see if any of the 23 had what it would take to make a difference in the second test. Jack Nowell, Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson were the three stand out performers. Lawes and Henderson well and truly out muscled the Hurricanes up front. While Nowell impressed with attacking nouse and sheer determination, getting over the line twice.
This proved only enough for a 31-31 draw. The Hurricanes capitalised on a Henderson yellow card in the 65th minute, fighting their way back from a 17-31 defecit. The home side scored two converted tries from Wesley Goosen and Vaea Fifita. Lawes, Nowell and CJ Stander all earned their way onto the bench for the second and third tests. A bitter sweet result, the Lions went into the second test with a ‘do or die’ mindset, desperate to tie up the series.
All Blacks, Wellington – The Second Test
Backs against the wall, the Lions were driven by the motivation that a win would leave the series 1-1 in the run up to the third and final test back at Eden Park. Both sides seemed evenly matched, up until a 25th minute red card for centre Sonny Bill Williams for a shoulder charge to the head of Lions winger Anthony Watson. The All Blacks were a man down and fought valiantly, leading the Lions 15-9 until the 60th minute. Seemingly tiring from doing the work of an extra man, the All Blacks conceded tries from no.8 Faletau and scrum-half Murray to lose the game 21-24. The Lions had done what they came to Wellington for, a win and a chance to win the series at Eden Park a week later.
We look forward to the final test tomorrow with baited breath, alarms set, coffee and cereal or beers and bacon at the ready. Has there ever been a more exciting series decider? While I’m sure our more seasoned fans will have a few suggestions, it makes for a tough argument.