Lions 16-22 Blues: The game’s key talking points
Warren Gatland's men fell to a late Ihaia West wonder-try and while the performance was improved, there is still much to work on ahead of the Crusaders test
A tale of missed opportunities
The Lions are becoming masters at not being able to get over the whitewash. Against the Provincial Barbarians, on four occasions, they rumbled, or spun over the tryline and still came away with nul points and against the Blues, points were again left out on the field. Take the first 10 minutes; they had three chances but didn’t take one. You had Sonny Bill Williams stripping Leigh Halfpenny of the ball on the 5m line, after an encouraging multi-phase attack.
Less than a minute later, a fine spot-tackle from Dan Biggar on Sonny Bill Williams saw the ball knocked back only for Payne’s heavy touch to take the ball beyond the deadball line and it was Payne again, whose foot went into touch after the ball was whipped down the line. This trend carried on until the final moments when Rory Best failed to find his jumper from 5m out as the Lions chased victory. The coaches can talk about being clinical until the cows come home, but it has to be translated onto the pitch. Fast.
Penalty count and discipline
The penalty count between both sides was relatively balanced, with the Lions conceding 13 penalties to the Blues’ 11, but the Lions, arguably, came at the more critical moments. Dan Biggar was penalised for encroaching at the lineout, Courtney Lawes was pinged for infringing at the lineout when the Lions were deep in the Blues’ territory, while Maro Itoje – who had an excellent all-round game – was also penalised on a number of occasions.
On the stroke of half-time it was CJ Stander’s turn to get pinged for a high-tackle which led to Sonny Bill Williams’ try on the stroke of half-time. In the second-half, it was time for Liam Williams to transgress, after he first had a penalty reversed after taking Duffie out in the air deep in the Blues territory, before seeing yellow for taking the same man out two minutes later, after Perofeta had lofted a ball into the skies. Indeed, it was one of the areas for improvement that Ken Owens flagged in the post-match interview. There is scant room for error.
Changing tack in game
Time and time again, we saw Rhys Webb launching box-kicks into the Auckland sky. Whether he was taking the initiative in-game, or it had been pre-planned due to the greasy conditions after a downpour – I’m guessing it was the latter – as the game wore on, it was clear he was getting little joy from a back-three consisting of ex-Scarlets full-back Michael Collins, Matt Duffie or white-hot 20-year-old flyer Reiko Ioane.
They fielded the pill well, and ran 210m between them – nearly twice that of their counterparts, Halfpenny, Daly and Nowell. A little more variety may have served the Lions well.
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Lack of wit and ambition out wide
So far the Lions have played 160 minutes of rugby and have a solitary try from a back – Anthony Watson – to show for it. It’s hardly inflicting rugby chaos on the opposition. In both games, Ben Te’o aside, midfielders have had fairly anonymous games, with players seemingly unfamiliar with Johnny Sexton’s deep wrap-round pass and the offloading stats were telling with the Blues getting the ball away on 14 occasions to the Lions’ four.
Contrast that with the Reiko Ioane try, when Perofeta did a looping cut-out pass, or when West hit the sweetest of lines. Lions fans are waiting for their X-factor moment but are unsure when they’re going to get it. Backs coach Rob Howley has his dissenters West of the Severn Bridge and they will only grow if the Lions backs continue to huff and puff.
The Blues danger men do the business
Sonny Bill Williams has had a wretched time with injury in the last 12 months and there were suggestions he would miss out on selection for the Lions Series. If that was the case, SBW hadn’t read the script. In the opening few minutes he secured a key turnover, stripped Stander of the ball minutes later and on the cusp of half-time, pounced on the ball to slide in under the sticks.
He wasn’t finished either. In the second-half there was the trademark offload out of a tackle to Akira Ioane, before adding the coup de grace, with a perfectly weighted ‘catflap’ pass to Ihaia West to slice through the Lions defence. The other man to do his selection chances no harm was Reiko Ioane, who gave Jack Nowell a torrid time, showing the blistering pace that would have caught Steve Hansen’s eye.