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.
A brutal forward pack assault silenced the Maori All Blacks and handed the British and Irish Lions a vital, morale-boosting 32-10 victory.
A penalty try and another score from Maro Itoje crushed the Maori spirit, with the home side given precious little sniff of stealing a victory to emulate their predecessors of 2005.
The Maori stunned the Lions 19-13 some 12 years back, but here the tourists wrestled their hosts into submission.
Leigh Halfpenny’s six penalties and flawless 20-point haul from the boot underpinned a muscular triumph, with the tourists dominant at the set-piece and all tight exchanges.
The Lions badly needed this victory, which will raise hopes somewhat ahead of next weekend’s Test opener against the All Blacks. But their attack is still yet to fire, and they can expect New Zealand to pick at that in the almost endless talking shop ahead of the Test clashes.
Still, the win and its inherent solidity will have proved some boon to Lions head coach Warren Gatland.
The tourists’ boss came under fire for apparently prioritising geographic proximity over meritocracy when drafting in four Welsh players and two from Scotland, to ease the burden on his squad ahead of the All Blacks Tests.
Even Sir Ian McGeechan – Gatland’s Lions mentor – admitted the policy was “difficult to justify”, with the Lions claiming players from England and Ireland had too tiresome travel times to join the tour from Argentina and Japan.
The Lions will put their new recruits on the bench for Tuesday’s Chiefs clash in Hamilton, to protect their front-line 23 ahead of Saturday’s first All Blacks Test in Auckland.
Gatland has always maintained chasing Test-match victories against the back-to-back world champions must trump all other concerns however. So after copping some flak, he will have been delighted for the Lions to prevail in style in Rotorua.
Promising breaks undone by no killer instinct proved the story of a frustrating first half for the Lions, who still led 12-10 at the break.
The tourists spent all week demanding an end to stupid errors, only to gift the Maori the only try of the half.
George North continued his indifferent form by failing to claim cleanly when sliding back in a bid to sweep up a kick in behind. Nehe Milner-Skudder hacked on and Liam Messam finished.
Damian McKenzie’s conversion pushed the Maori into a 7-6 lead, after Halfpenny had posted two penalties for the Lions.
The Maori proved savvy at killing the ball every time the Lions edged deep into their territory, to stop Gatland’s men capping several smart moves with a try. Johnny Sexton’s half-break almost set Tadhg Furlong away, then Jon Davies dummied and swept through the line, but neither time could the Lions finish.
Halfpenny’s third penalty put the Lions 9-7 ahead at the top of the second quarter, only for petulance from Itoje to cost his side.
The England lock threw the ball away after being choke-tackled, and referee Jaco Peyper pushed the visitors back 10 metres, enough to let McKenzie slot the goal, with the Maori sneaking a 10-9 lead.
Another Sexton half-break had Davies stealing through the line, only to spill the ball in contact.
Halfpenny’s fifth penalty pushed the Lions into a 15-10 lead to open the second half, with George Kruis increasingly vocal as the tourists ploughed through profitable tight phases.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow was fortunate to escape a yellow card when he shoulder-charged Halfpenny in the face, with the Lions full-back sliding low after being tackled.
The Lions produced a smart driving lineout, Ben Te ‘o powered close, and then Jamie George burrowed to the line. The try was chalked off however, with the officials unable to determine whether George had reached the whitewash.
The Lions then ruined the Maori scrum, not once but twice, with referee Peyper awarding a penalty try from the second. The new rules mean penalty tries are automatically worth seven points, so the Lions led 22-10 with half an hour to play.
The Lions turned the screw, forcing another five-metre scrum. Taulupe Faletau drove close, and Itoje finished off. Halfpenny’s conversion pushed the Lions’ lead to 29-10. By the time Kerr-Barlow returned, the Lions had won the game.
Provided by Press Association
The All Blacks ran in 12 tries to demolish Samoa 78-0 in Auckland on Friday, sending out a clear warning to the British and Irish Lions ahead of next week’s first Test.
It was a game set up for the All Blacks to clear out any rust before they front the composite team at Eden Park next weekend, and rust there was.
If there weren’t teething problems in their first run of the season the score would have been higher as tries went begging.
Tackles were also missed but New Zealand still kept Samoa scoreless in what ballooned to their second biggest win against the Pacific islanders.
The All Blacks led 28-0 with four tries in the first half and added another eight in a sparkling second spell, including one to new cap Vaea Fifita who came off the bench to score with his first touch of the ball.
“Samoa started out really physical and really tested us,” said All Blacks captain Ben Smith. “We had to be really disciplined tonight and when we were, we started to profit from that. “We’ll go away and learn from that and make sure we’re better next week. There’s a lot of learnings there that will be great for our group.”
There was plenty for the Lions to take note of, especially the control of the All Blacks forwards at the set piece and the audacious offloads. When there was the merest hint of a counter-attack opportunity, the All Blacks struck hard.
Aaron Smith justified his return to the starting line-up as he was central to directing play into the gaps.
But against that, the world champions revived a problem of old when they made a slow start and displayed a creaking defence.
“We just didn’t capitalise on those first 20 minutes,” said Samoa captain Kahn Fotuali’i. “We got down to their tryline and coughed it up too many times.”
He added: “It was tough, they’re not number one in the world for no reason and we knew what we were up against.”
Following the pre-match confrontation with the rival war dances — the All Blacks with their haka and Samoa with their siva tau — it was the Samoans who were the most fired up when the whistle blew.
They dominated territory for the opening quarter with centres Alapati Leiua and Kieron Fonotia carving through the All Blacks backs, where Sonny Bill Williams was twice found wanting.
But despite the pressure, the All Blacks remained calm and when the chance came to counter-attack they pounced.
After defending desperately for the first 10 minutes, it took two well-placed Aaron Smith clearing kicks to ease the pressure and once inside the Samoan 22, a pop pass from Beauden Barrett saw Anton Lienert-Brown score the opening try.
In the closing 10 minutes of the half the All Blacks scored three more tries. The first came when Fonotia lost the ball on the All Blacks line which resulted in Ben and Aaron Smith running the hosts out of trouble, and ended with a Barrett try 90 metres away.
Ardie Savea and Williams also crossed the line to have the All Blacks turn 28-0 up as the Samoans’ spirited start flagged.
Aaron Smith started the second half using turnover ball to spark a 60-metre move for Israel Dagg to score.
Julian Savea, Codie Taylor, Beauden Barrett, Fifita, TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea also scored in the second half as rhe All Blacks ran riot.
Beauden Barrett landed seven conversions and Lima Sopoaga kicked two on a night which will give the Lions plenty to chew over ahead of the three-Test series.