It was far from pretty but the Lions have ground out a 12-3 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch and will likely feel their tour is back on track, after threatening to derail with the midweek loss to The Blues and unconvincing win over the Provincial Barbarians.
Lions coach Warren Gatland named his most experienced team yet, with nine of the starting XV having toured Australia in 2013. Welsh lock Alun Wyn-Jones became the third captain in as many matches and, true to Gatland’s word, all 41 Lions have now had at least one start.
His Crusaders counterpart Scott Robertson was able to name seven current and two recent All Blacks, plus two injury cover squad members, in the 23 including an all-All Black tight five.
A poor Crusaders’ kickoff reception, something they’re normally so good at, proved to be an omen as they made an uncharacteristic number of errors and failed to really get into the game at any point.
That, though, was largely due to the Lions’ near-perfect application of the principles of “Warrenball”. By comparison to the Blues loss the kicking was better-judged and more accurate, and the chase far better, which largely took the Crusaders favoured counter-attacking game out of play. Big men running into contact forced the Crusaders to play closer to the ruck than they prefer, too.
Defensively the Lions were excellent, very quick off the line and giving Crusaders 5/8 Richie Mo’unga very little time or space to set the backs alight. The Lions lineout was again very solid, while the Crusaders had a number of poor throws, at least one of which cost them a potential try.
Mention also has to be made of French referee Mathieu Raynal who was largely responsible for nullifying another Crusaders weapon, their scrum. One “walking around the corner” decision in particular had coach Scott Robertson spitting tacks in the box and his players incredulous, but there were several others including an “early engage” that seemed simultaneous with the “set” call. It took 76 minutes for the Crusaders to be awarded a scrum penalty and their frustration was plain to see.
For the Lions halfback Conor Murray was brilliant, albeit he took out his fullback Stuart Hogg who ran into his elbow at pace, left the field bleeding, and didn’t return. Also excellent were Centre Ben Te’o, starting loose forwards Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau, and replacement loose forward CJ Stander. Lock and captain Alun Wyn Jones had a big night, albeit he rode his luck in conceding two penalties in as many minutes deep in his own 22.
The scoring was all from the tee, Owen Farrell kicking four in the 12th, 16th, 30th and 70th minutes, and having one appear to go over the top of the upright in the 45th. Mo’unga got the Crusaders only points of the night in the 24th minute.
This week The Lions play The Highlanders on Tuesday and the Maori All Blacks on Saturday in Rotorua.