So, it’s 30-15 on the All Blacks serve, to coin a tennis analogy. They are on top after a dominant hard hitting display, leading from the front and hardly taking a backward step, allied to some beautiful touches and soft hands on occasions. The series is there for the taking and they will seek to make it game, set and match next week in Wellington. However, all is not lost for the Lions and their brave battling performance offers a glimmer of hope, especially if they are able to cut out the unforced errors and take their chances when presented.
Ultimately the All Blacks deserved their victory for their somewhat unexpected forward dominance in the tight and particularly at the breakdown, allied to their all action, sometimes scintillating off loading attacking game. They were smarter in all areas and far more quick thinking, giving the Lions little time to pause for breath and re-organise their defensive shape.
And that’s it in a nutshell. The All Blacks are the best team in the world which they proved, with huge amounts of individual talent which they put together seemingly effortlessly to bond as a team and produce some incredible rugby. The Lions, for all their efforts, ultimately couldn’t live with them, albeit offered enough from both a defensive and attacking perspective to cause some concern in the NZ ranks. However, it was their basic errors (dropped balls, the number of penalties conceded, turnovers, switching off at penalties and missed opportunities) which cost them dear.
Gatland offered an honest assessment afterwards and suggested that whilst the All Blacks were deserving winners, the Lions errors can be fixed and saw no reason why they couldn’t push the All Blacks far closer next time out.
The Lions back three, the topic of much discussion pre-match, all justified their selections and the way in which Liam Williams counterattacked from the shadow of his own posts late in the first half, linking with the evergreen Jonathan Davies and then Elliot Daly, enabling Sean O’Brien to score was simply breathtaking. Other chances came and went and when the score stood at 13-8 after 55 minutes, the Lions were very much in the match. Yet a huge All Black scrum, deft hands from Kieran Read at the base of the scrum and then by Cruden and his fellow backs saw Ioane dive over in the corner and that was effectively game over, which was confirmed with a further penalty from Barrett a short while after, following further All Black forward dominance.
At this point the Lions play became ragged, further errors were made as they tried to play catch up and following Liam Williams’ dropping a high ball, Ioane stretched his legs once more to outpace Daly to score, adding further salt to the wounds. The late arrival of Sinckler and Webb made a difference for the Lions and whilst Webb’s try was merely a consolation, it added a little more respectability to the score line which the Lions arguably deserved.
There will be calls for changes to be made next week, but the Lions must not make wholesale changes just for the sake of it. On the whole this team defended well, albeit did switch off on a couple of occasions which led to tries, and showed enough in attack to allow the existing back line to be given another chance. Sexton could replace the disappointing Farrell, who may still have been feeling the affects of his recent injury and Webb put his hand up for more game time, albeit Murray should arguably still start. In the forwards, both Itoje and Lawes could offer more of a dynamic threat than both Kruis and AW Jones but it could be harsh to ditch them both after one match. The back row arguably offers more cause for concern, as this is an area where the All Blacks were dominant, so Warburton, Tupuric and CJ Stander all come into contention but again it might be harsh to make too many changes in haste.
Marks out of 10
Williams 7 – excellent in attack with a brilliant break which led to the Lions first try. However, a little vulnerable under the high ball and his dropping of a very makeable catch led directly to the All Blacks 3rd try and the Lions really can’t afford to make those sort of errors if they want to beat the All Blacks.
Watson 7 – a decent match with one stunning break in the second half and one crucial try saving catch early in the first half.
Davies 8 – a very good match. Made line breaks, had a big role in the Lions first try, distributed well and looked dangerous throughout, always asking questions of the All Black defence.
T’eo 6 – wholehearted and committed, didn’t let anyone down but could never really breach the gain line. Had a big battle with his old rugby league adversary Sonny Bill Williams and ended honours about even.
Daly 7 – showed well, justified his selection and played a crucial role in the Lions first try. Decent in the air but was exposed a little for two of the All Blacks tries.
Farrell 5 / 6 – it didn’t really go for him and he looked a little undercooked. Some stray passes, missed a couple of tackles at close quarters and didn’t really add much from an attacking perspective. Missed a conversion which he would normally expect to kick which was indicative of the slightly off key nature of his performance.
Murray 6 – excellent box kicking but added little as an attacking force. Had a chance to score in the first half but didn’t have the pace to see it to the line.
Mako 6 – strong in the tackle and had a reasonable amount of the ball but removed from the action before the hour, looking tired
George 6 – didn’t let anyone down and line out throwing was good.
Furlong 6 – stood up well and showed good physicality. Needs to be careful not to overplay and force the play when in open spaces.
Kruis 5 – a little disappointing for one who usually sets such high standards. Dropped a couple of balls which he would normally expect to take and was twice turned over.
AW Jones 5 / 6 – didn’t let anyone down but maybe his best days are behind him and doesn’t have the dynamism of Itoje nor the All Black second row, Gatland sensed this and withdrew him from the action before 50 minutes were up.
O’Mahony 6 – good in the line out and put in a strong defensive shift but showed little as an attacking force. Removed from the action before the hour mark as the Lions needed to up the ante going forward and at the breakdown.
O’Brien 6 – tracked well to finish off and score the Lions first try. Competed well and lasted the full 80 minutes but ultimately he and his back row colleagues came off second best to their All Black counterparts.
Faletau 6 – a little quiet and not as effective as he has been in previous tour matches
Sinckler 7 – always makes a difference as an impact substitute and pressed his claims for a starting place in the second test
McGrath 5 / 6 – came on at a critical stage in the second half just as the All Blacks were starting to impose themselves in the scrum and could do little to stem the flow
Owens 5/ 6 – disastrous first line out throw which was stolen when the Lions were attacking close to the All Blacks line ( why do teams make a change at hooker at such a critical point when the line out had been working well up to that point ?) but showed well thereafter
Itoje 7 – came on with over 30 minutes to go with arguably a point to prove. Stole a crucial line out ball and was prominent around the pitch. Likely to start in the second test
Warburton 5 / 6 – came on with 20 minutes to go, to try and add some attacking presence and dynamism at the breakdown but was largely anonymous, and from one line out take he had the ball stolen from him
Webb 7 – had precious little time to put his stamp on the match but showed up well and scored a classic scrum half’s snipers try right on full time. He certainly adds pace and an extra dimension to the Lions attacking game but his kicking and all round game management can be inconsistent
Sexton 6 – was well marked and had little opportunity to add to the Lions as an attacking force
Halfpenny 6 – only came on towards the very end and had no opportunity to make a mark