The second-row was supposed to be the Lions’ strongest suit and many hours, whether on social media or Warren Gatland’s war room, had been spent winnowing down five freight trains to a Test two.
George Kruis – who forwards coach Steve Borthwick mentored at Saracens – was a presumably safe pair of hands at the lineout. In Gatland’s words it was a toss-up between the three-tour veteran Alun-Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje, who had not been born the last time New Zealand lost at Eden Park. But Courtney Lawes had signed off his Test case with an exclamation mark after a superb tour to date and the rangy Iain Henderson had also done little wrong.
Ultimately the Lions Express never left the station. The All Blacks’ combination of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock was an ugly reminder that whatever the tourists could do, the world champions can do infinitely better.
Jones, and especially Kruis, had poor games but to place them under too harsh a glare obscures just how average they were made to look by the opposition.
Retallick was unable to name one England player before the Red Rose toured his islands in 2014 – when pressed he offered ‘Michael Lawes’ – and the Lions faded into anonymity in his mind here.
It can be hard to work out just where Retallick’s arms end and his hands begin. He plunged into every ruck, offloaded at near impossible angles and strangled off Lions carries in a python grip.
Twelve carries saw him make 38 metres. Kruis and Jones combined made seven metres from six. Freight trains? Try featherweights.
Predictably the knives were out for both in the aftermath but even after Itoje, the people’s champion, entered the fray, the Lions conceded two further tries and their scrum looked at its shakiest.
Coach Warren Gatland said his forwards had under-performed and indicated he was ready to wield the axe after the British and Irish Lions crashed 30-15 to the All Blacks on Saturday.
The New Zealander said Tuesday’s tour match against the Hurricanes was a big chance for players to force their way into the side for next week’s second Test.
Gatland had placed great store in his forwards dominating the battle up front but found they were not good enough against an All Blacks side that posted a commanding victory.
After leading 13-8 at half-time, the hosts pulled away midway through the second half when the All Blacks demolished a Lions scrum, leading to a try by 20-year-old wing Rieko Ioane.
“It’s a big game for those guys on Tuesday against the Hurricanes. They’ll see it as an opportunity,” Gatland said, who must now go back to the drawing board.
“From my point of view we’ve got to be much more physical next week because they’ve taken a very physical approach tonight.”
Gatland said he was “disappointed” in his forwards, who had no answer to the All Blacks’ strength.
“We’ve had some success off our driven lineout (before) but the All Blacks sacked us… we didn’t get a lot of success from our proper lineout,” he said.
“And obviously one scrum caught us and put us under pressure, so from a set-piece point of view there are a couple of areas for improvement.”
The British and Irish Lions’ quest for a first Test series triumph against New Zealand since 1971 began in losing fashion at Eden Park.
The Lions’ 30-15 defeat means they have to win next Saturday’s encounter in Wellington to force a series decider seven days later.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at some of the talking points that emerged from the match.
NEW ZEALAND GOT PHYSICAL – AND THE LIONS STRUGGLED TO HANDLE IT
Much had been made during the first Test build-up of the Lions’ set-piece power and physical approach, but it was New Zealand who came up trumps, playing a forceful, direct game. The All Blacks’ confidence emanated from a strong scrum, while in lock Brodie Retallick and number eight Kieran Read they possessed two forwards in majestic form. The Lions will be bruised – physically and mentally – and they have seven days to recover.
MARO ITOJE SHOULD HAVE STARTED FOR THE LIONS
Saracens’ former European player of the year had to be content with a bench role after Lions head coach Warren Gatland said it had been a proverbial “toss of the coin” in selection between England lock Itoje and Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones. Jones got the nod, but he struggled during the first half and eventually made way for Itoje early in the second period. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, yet Itoje would probably have made much more impact from the start.
THE LIONS’ OPENING TRY WILL BE REMEMBERED AS ONE OF THEIR GREATEST
The Lions have scored some memorable tries during their illustrious history, but it is hard to remember many better than the one finished by flanker Sean O’Brien just before half-time at Eden Park. It was started by full-back Liam Williams, who ran brilliantly from deep inside his own half, beating a number of defenders, then the move was taken on at thrilling pace by centre Jonathan Davies and wing Elliot Daly before O’Brien touched down some 80 metres from where Williams began his counter-attack. It was breathtaking, off-the-cuff genius.
KIERAN READ LED FROM THE FRONT ON HIS RETURN FROM INJURY
The All Blacks captain had not played since late April after breaking his thumb on Super Rugby duty with the Crusaders, but it was like he had never been away, such was the impact he made on proceedings. His all-round game was immense, his leadership inspirational and his skills were showcased beautifully by a deft offload that set up one of wing Rieko Ioane’s two tries. He had already been confirmed as a worthy successor to retired World Cup-winning skipper Richie McCaw, and he once again highlighted what a brilliant performer he is.
THE LIONS MUST NOT PANIC
Although New Zealand claimed a comfortable win on the scoreboard, there were times in the game when the Lions genuinely rocked their world champion hosts, especially with ball in hand. The tourists will have to work out a way of combating New Zealand’s physicality, yet they should not be disheartened as they look to regroup on arriving in Wellington on Sunday, where they face the Hurricanes next Tuesday and then New Zealand four days later. There are a lot of twists and turns ahead before this Test series is decided either way.