You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief in the Lions’ box at the end of yesterday’s crunch tie against the hitherto unbeaten Crusaders. This wasn’t a must-win match, and the fact that the tourists not only won but dominated the Super Rugby leaders will breathe new belief into this squad of players and especially the management.
This was a show of traditional Northern Hemisphere virtues; a strong set piece, with a smart and aggressive defence allied to a canny kicking game by the Lions’ half-backs Conor Murray and Owen Farrell. The Crusaders rarely got the ball and when they did they were not afforded the space to use it.
We know these tourists aren’t going to score a lot of tries so they need to ensure that the opposition don’t score many either. Job done. The midfield line-speed was excellent, decision making was good and only rarely did the Crusaders, a team that has averaged 37 points per match this season and earned seven try bonuses, look like threatening the Lions’ line.
The Lions’ defence is going to have to be exceptional if it is to keep the All Blacks at bay and while that remains a big ask it is no longer the complete flight of fancy it was just days ago.
Murray already looks like the key player in the Lions team, on yesterday’s evidence, even more so than his English stand-off.
The Irishman box-kicked beautifully from the base of the scrum, almost all of them were contestable (Ali Price could learn a lesson). All the Lions need now is to find someone to contest them. George North has the ability to turn a match on its head but you feel that the big Welshman poses less of a threat in this neck of the woods where giant wingers are not exactly a new phenomenon. North is so ineffective in the air that Scotland targeted him relentlessly in the Six Nations where Tim Visser bossed that battle. The winger rarely retrieved the ball yesterday despite the Crusaders being uncharacteristically tentative..
On the other wing, Liam Williams took the safe option of not competing at all, after collecting a yellow card last Wednesday. Williams is normally excellent in the air but he was so poor on Wednesday, in that aspect and just about every other one, that he is surely testing the limits of Warren Gatland’s famed loyalty to his Welsh favourites.
At the risk of sounding parochial the best aerial operator is Tommy Seymour and if Saturday was a blueprint for the Test team, which is what most pundits are predicting, then the Scot should be drafted in because North is more likely to lose a match down there as he is to win one.
The defence now looks fit for purpose but the Lions’ attack failed to score a try and have managed just two in their opening three games. That remains a worry but at least there were still some positives.
Some of the Lions’ handling was exceptional, they offloaded more than before only to see the last pass in the opposition red zone go astray, as was the case in the opening minute when Jon Davies found a Crusader rather than North.
At least the Lions’ attacking shape looked far better than it has to date because rather than sending three isolated runners into the opposition midfield with no options open, the tourists played out from the back of that attacking trio, keeping the opposition defence guessing, and making far more yards because of it.
Sadly it was another forgettable evening for Stuart Hogg who was injured by his own room-mate Murray in a bizarre accident. The Irishman lifted his arms to show he was not interfering with play and Hogg ran into his elbow! The Scot left the field in the first half never to return. Hogg failed an head injury assessment and will miss the next match against the Highlanders.
The Scotland full-back then had salt rubbed in his wound by having to watch his replacement, Englishman Anthony Watson, turn on the style.