ITOJE SERVES A TIMELY REMINDER
Absence seemed to make the heart grow less fond of Itoje, with Alun Wyn Jones and George Kruis the presumptive second-row starters. But SuperMaro showed the type of dynamism that has elevated his game above every other tight forward in the northern hemisphere.
A turnover king – even the penalty he conceded at the end of the first half was harsh – an excellent scrummager and possessing unmatched line speed, it is no slight on Jones to say the Welshman comes second best. Pairing lineout technician Kruis with his Saracens teammate will give the All Blacks lots to chew on.
NORTH’S CAREER HEADING SOUTH?
A lung-busting performance from Jonathan Davies at outside centre and an assured one at full-back by kicking supremo Leigh Halfpenny will drown out calls of Welsh bias under Warren Gatland – but there is no hiding place for George North.
A hero in Australia four years ago, the North of 2017 looks leggy and ponderous. His try-causing blunder in the first half aside, there was very little evidence of the pace and power that once made him feared. He is just 25 years of age, but with 79 Tests and a series of health issues behind him, North may never be the same again.
HERE’S JOHNNY – BUT WHERE’S FARRELL?
Sexton is one man who has certainly come back from the brink, producing his best performance in months to put his hand up as a Test starter. In the first half in particular, the Leinsterman was dishing out flat passes on a plate and creating hesitancy in the Maori line.
With a very different option in Ben Te’o proving a tour standout at 12, the question is where to start Owen Farrell – if fit – against the All Blacks. He is carrying a quad injury – though Halfpenny can take over kicking duties – but it would be a bold decision to consider leaving him out.
TRY AS THEY MIGHT
Brute power helped the Lions win by a landslide as the Maoris simply could not compete with them at the set-piece in the second half. The penalty try and Itoje’s close-range effort were hardly laced with subtlety, however, and the backs’ finishing again fell frustratingly short despite numerous opportunities.
It would be naïve to think the All Blacks’ forwards can simply be rolled over and if the Lions are forced to rely on Halfpenny’s boot in the Tests, it is not likely to end well for them. Gatland may be looking longingly at Gregor Townsend, who turned down the chance to become a Lions attack coach. Under Townsend’s watch Scotland produced a breathless attacking performance to beat Australia yesterday.
DIFFERENCE IS NIGHT AND DAY
This crop has been dubbed the strongest Lions squad ever but there is an ever-widening gulf developing between the haves and the have-nots. Hearteningly, defeats against the Blues and Highlanders should not be read much into heading into the Tests – very few of the mid-week players are set to feature.
Convincing wins against the previously unbeaten Crusaders and now the Maoris are the only blueprints that Gatland needs.