Given the manner of the Lions defeat to the Blues on Wednesday, many were out in force suggesting that this was a tour in which the Lions would suffer defeat after defeat, but the truth of the matter was that despite the loss, there were many positive areas on display.
The Blues are the lowest ranked side in the New Zealand conference this year, and the prospect of facing arguably the potential Super Rugby champions a few days later lead many to fear for the worst; especially given they haven’t yet lost a game this season. Any pessimism has been routed though, as the Lions pulled out a display of great defensive resilience to overcome the free scoring Crusaders by twelve points to three.
And in truth, the scoreline is in some ways not a great indication of how the game played out. Three points for the Crusaders will rankle their fans, who have failed to see their team cross the try line for the first time since April 2015, but it does reflect the quality of the Lions defence. Indeed the pressure that the Lions put the Crusaders under accounted for more errors than we are used to seeing from them.
Twelve points for the Lions though belies the fact that they looked a lot more threatening with the ball in hand, and but for wayward passes could very well have found themselves with a few five pointers.
In short, it was a display where the Lions showed a great deal of promise, and confounded those who ever doubted them.
The Lions absolutely won through in this game because of their defence. The Crusaders were shut down, and didn’t look at all likely to open the Lions defence up. That said, they did have a few opportunities when play became more open, but by and large, the pressure that they were under resulted in mistakes and little gain.
It is worth noting though, defensively the Crusaders were good, and had the Lions not improved their attacking options for this game, they might have kept them at bay, though as it was, the inclusion of Conor Murray and Owen Farrell certainly made a difference. Their game management, and the quality of the their kicking pinned the Crusaders back and gave the Lions a great platform to build from.
Despite the quality of defence from both sides however, there were times when the game opened up. Anthony Watson made a barnstorming run through the defence from full back, and has put his hand up for a place in the first test side. For the Crusaders, Jack Goodhue showed some great class, and had the man outside of him gathered his kick through, we could have seen a Crusaders score on the board.
Indeed the Crusaders did make it over the try line at one point, but the TMO ruled that the video angles he had were inconclusive. Had that try been given though, it seemed unlikely that the Crusaders would have built any momentum from it, such was the strength of the Lions defence.
Over the course of the game, the Lions had 55% of the possession, and nearly 60% territory, and when you have a kicking machine like Owen Farrell, you can be assured that the score board will keep ticking over in your favour if you remain in the right positions.
This was Northern Hemisphere rugby at its best though; a strong set piece, and a strong defence. It deprived the Crusaders of the space they love and turned the game into a battle of attrition that those teams above the equator are so good at. At times, it felt like a full test match.
And nowhere more was the attritional nature of this game felt than in the forwards, where the Lions had the edge in physicality. Not only did they win in the contact area defensively, they also won in attack. They forced the Crusaders back in the tackle, and they got over the gain line with the ball in hand.
Further to this, their rucking was superb, and so the Lions never truly had a problem with ball retention, and had they had a little more patience at times, they might have come out with some tries.
The Lions showed a great deal of promise across the board against the Crusaders, not least with the improvements in their attacking game. In previous fixtures, their attack has been stale, and too static, often seeing the ball pass through the hands with no one running contrasting lines, but it was very clear early on in this fixture that this is something the Lions have been working on.
Conor Murray added a great deal of impetus into the attacking play, and it’s hard not to pencil him down as the starting 9 in the first test. What was important though, were the vast amount of options that he and Farrell had to work with. At all times, the forwards were providing close runners, and the backs gave short, wide, and deep options, which allowed the Lions to vary their attack a lot more, and open the Crusaders defence up.
Despite looking a to more dangerous, the Lions failed to score a try, and this ultimately came down to costly mistakes. There were times when the final pass was lacking, or the Lions tried to force the play. Early on in the game, it felt like their lack of tries previously had manifested in an urgency to score, whereas if they had remained patient, they might have come away with something more. Indeed, when the Lions were camped on the Crusaders line, Farrell chose to spin a long pass out wide to George North, rather than using hands to draw the defenders in and capitalise on the overlap.
Of course, it is these fine margins by which games are won and lost. The excellence of the Lions defence ensured they weren’t punished for not taking their opportunities, but when the first test has come around, one misplaced pass could be the difference between winning and losing a series.
Nevertheless, the Lions showed some great promise in attack, and after Sexton had replaced Jonathan Davies, one felt like they were watching the test midfield. Sexton hasn’t started the tour particularly well, but he certainly improved in this game, and showed that having both he and Farrell on the field at the same time added a lot of stability to the side. Ben Te’o also had a great game, and is certainly playing himself in with a chance to make that first test.
There were plenty of solid performances in the forwards too, but there wasn’t really too much to improve on for them, as they bossed the scrum, line out and breakdown against the Blues, and did so again today for the most part. Crusaders fans may well feel aggrieved at some of the refereeing decisions at scrum time, but it certainly looked as if the Lions had the upper hand.
In truth, the Lions will probably be quite happy with the way this fixture panned out. They didn’t score any tries, but they looked far more incisive, though not clinical, in attack, and their forwards have proven once again that they are a strong powerful unit capable of dominating the set piece. If they can maintain this ascendancy, and continue their defensive intensity, the tour can only go from strength to strength.