The British and Irish Lions roared back from this week’s shock defeat to end the Canterbury Crusaders’ unbeaten streak 12-3 as they finally hit form in New Zealand on Saturday.
Owen Farrell kicked all the visitors’ points as a nearly full-strength Lions side handed the Southern Hemisphere’s leading club their first loss of the season.
The Lions were lacklustre in their first two games — including Wednesday’s shock defeat to the Auckland Blues — but Saturday’s performance is likely to make the All Blacks sit up and take notice, two weeks from the opening Test.
Farrell kicked four penalties for the Lions and Richie Mo’unga landed one for the Crusaders, and the biggest problem for the Lions was that they could not find the try line.
But they did keep their own line intact, shutting down the famed Crusaders attack, with Farrell pivotal to the transformation.
He generally kicked short to make the ball contestable, with the Lions winning the aerial battle. Apart from one misfired pass which potentially cost Jonathan Davies a try, Farrell’s running game was damaging.
With travel fatigue now out of the system, the Lions needed to make a statement and ironically their cause was helped when Davies went off injured in the first half, allowing Johnny Sexton to take the field as a second playmaker.
In a match viewed as a fourth Test, Warren Gatland fielded his strongest XV of the tour so far, minus injured captain Sam Warburton, and under the alternative leadership of Alun Wyn Jones the Lions took control from the start.
Gatland has always maintained that his focus is winning the Tests, and in a match-up of Test-style intensity his players were not found wanting.
They struggled in the scrums against the All Blacks-laden pack, but that was an area where the Crusaders were frequently penalised, and Peter O’Mahony and Alun Wyn Jones ensured the Lions functioned better at the lineouts.
The big problem for the Lions remained their inability to finish. In the first half, a pass to an unmarked George North missed its man, and Davies spilled a bullet pass from Farrell in the shadow of the posts.
In the second half, Liam Williams dropped a difficult pass metres short of the corner post and was also guilty, along with CJ Stander, of knocking the ball on when the Crusaders were in disarray.
With the Tests in mind, the Lions made points a priority and Farrell landing three penalties in the first half to one for the Crusaders by Mo’unga.
The first 30 minutes of the second half were scoreless until Farrell landed a fourth penalty with 10 minutes to play.
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