Lions slump at first test
The Lions roared, but the All Blacks just did their thing and took the lead in the series thanks to their superior ability to turn pressure into points.
Warren Gatland’s side threw a flurry of punches before and after half-time, but couldn’t land the killer blow. Instead, the world champions showed their class by riding out the storm and taking their chances when they came.
The tourists will have their grumbles about the performance of South African referee Jaco Peyper whose leniency around blocking lines and tolerance of some late hits on Conor Murray left them deeply frustrated.
Like they did in Dublin, with the same referee, New Zealand pushed the limits of what they could physically get away with and brought huge menace. The Lions didn’t take many backwards steps, but for all that they took the game to their hosts they couldn’t make it pay.
But in the end, they weren’t good enough to win despite scoring a try for the ages that gave the large travelling contingent in the 48,181-strong crowd at Eden Park hope that they could pull off a shock.
The game got off to ferociously quick start as a silly penalty concession from Aaron Smith on Conor Murray handed the Lions field position and they almost capitalised as Jon Davies cut through the All Black cover and found the scrum-half.
He looked to be through, but Smith got back and tap-tackled his opposite number. Owen Farrell found Elliot Daly and he fought his way past Israel Dagg but the winger grazed the touchline before touching down and the try was chalked off.
The Lions’ kicking game was reaping rewards, but slowly the All Blacks gained a foot-hold in the game and they were able to open the scoring through Beauden Barrett’s penalty after a sustained period of pressure tested the tourists’ defence.
They cranked things up and the pressure told when the Lions were penalised for not rolling away in their own ’22 and rather than take the points, Barrett took a quick tap and exploited the sleeping Lions defenders who failed to spot Codie Taylor on the right wing and the hooker brilliantly picked up Dagg’s pass to score.
Barrett converted and 10-0 down, the Lions were already in big trouble.
They attempted to play their way back in, but prime attacking position was spurned by a poor Alun-Wyn Jones knock-on and the Welsh second-row was struggling to justify his selection ahead of Maro Itoje.
Tadhg Furlong put pressure on Smith with a charge-down, but he was harshly adjudged to have knocked on when the ball appeared to come off his knee and the home side cleared their lines.
Daly almost got in again when he fielded Farrell’s cross-kick and beat Dagg, but then knocked on in contact with support on his shoulder.
Jaco Peyper was playing advantage, so the out-half kicked to touch. Owen Franks took Murray without the ball and Farrell got the Lions off the mark with a 31st minute penalty.
Barrett cancelled it out almost instantly after Brodie Retallick claimed the kick-off having snuck a few metres ahead of the kicker, before Jamie George went off his feet at a ruck.
Having already lost Ben Smith to a head injury, the All Blacks then saw Ryan Crotty limp off meaning they had two of their three back-line subs on before half-time.
The tourists needed to score next and they did with a try that will join Brian O’Driscoll’s 2001 effort and others in the pantheon.
It started with Liam Williams fielding a kick in his own ’22, evading Kieran Read and sauntering through a gap in the chasing line. He took Barrett’s tackle and off-loaded to Davies who found Elliot Daly. He cleverly held Anton Lienert-Brown up before finding Davies who was caught short of the line but found the trailing Sean O’Brien who wasn’t going to be stopped from close range.
Farrell missed the conversion and half-time came without further major incident, allowing both sides to regroup at 13-8.
As they left the field, Peter O’Mahony and Murray held a mini-conference with Peyper to address the treatment the scrum-half was receiving after his kicks, but the referee’s influence continued after the break as he harshly penalised Te’o for a crunching hit on Sonny Bill Williams.
O’Mahony stole the lineout after Aaron Cruden kicked to touch and the Lions counter-attacked again from within their own half with Williams again at the heart of it.
He found Davies who played a one-two with Murray before finding Anthon Watson and he in turn passed to Williams who was held up short. The ball moved to Te’o, but he slipped going into contact. The All Blacks thought they could breathe, but Watson countered from a Williams switch and carried deep into the ’22.
Again, the black line survived but the signs continued to be promising for the visiting team.
However, you can’t keep the world champions down and they put clear distance between the teams as their scrum drove the Lions’ back, Read flicked the ball up to Aaron Smith and he moved the ball wide where Rieko Ioane was on hand to score.
Barrett converted to make it a 12-point game and he extended it by three when Johnny Sexton strayed offside.
They turned down their next opportunity for points, but Maro Itoje brilliantly stole the 5m lineout. Sam Cane then got penalised for illegal blocking, allowing the Lions kick for position.
This was their chance, but Sam Whitelock got up and won one back The clearance didn’t go far, but the next attack ended with Sexton failing to find Farrell and instead, it was the home side who finished the job with Williams failing to deal with a TJ Perenara box-kick, which allowed Ioane pick it up and out-pace Daly for the line.
Barrett converted and the Lions kept trying to play with Kyle Sinckler making a break up the right, but Sam Cane continued to prove a thorn in their side and forced a poach penalty.
They finished the game on the front-foot and Rhys Webb went over for a consolation try at the death but as Farrell converted there was no hiding from the fact that they face a long week of introspection awaits them in Wellington as they seek to rescue the series.
NEW ZEALAND – B Smith (A Cruden 28 HIA); I Dagg, R Crotty (A Lienert-Brown 32), SB Williams, R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Peranara 58); J Moody (W Crockett 54), C Taylor (N Harris 67), O Franks (C Faumuina 54); B Retallick, S Whitelock; J Kaino (A Savea 46), S Cane, K Read (capt) (S Barrett 77).
LIONS – L Williams (L Halfpenny 72); A Watson, J Davies, B Te’o (J Sexton 58), E Daly; O Farrell, C Murray (R Webb 68); M Vunipola (J McGrath 52), J George (K Owens 68), T Furlong (K Sinckler 59); AW Jones (M Itoje 48), G Kruis; P O’Mahony (capt) (S Warburton 54), S O’Brien, T Faletau.
Referee: J Peyper (South Africa)
Ruaidhri O’Connor in Auckland