Rieko Ioane scored a brace as the All Blacks thumped the British & Irish Lions 30-15 in Auckland to take a 1-0 lead in the series. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Lions will rue the chances they didn't take in this clash. They will lament some of their decisions deep in the New Zealand 22. A sharper showing may well have resulted in a stunning win for the tourists, as well as a first home defeat for the All Blacks since 2009.
The tourists rattled the All Blacks at the collisions and did well to slow the hosts down at the breakdowns in the first half. Their kicking game was on point and they outplayed the All Blacks in the air – no mean feat, considering New Zealand's strength in both departments.
In terms of physicality, the game lived up to the hype. In terms of the speed of the contest, it exceeded expectations.
The Lions attempted to match the All Blacks for tempo during the initial stages. They were caught off guard in the 18th minute, though, when the hosts took a quick tap and shifted the ball to an unmarked Codie Taylor on the wing.
Beauden Barrett's conversion steered the All Blacks into a 10-point lead. At that stage, it appeared as if New Zealand were well in control.
Injuries to fullback Ben Smith and No 13 Ryan Crotty forced a reshuffle in the All Blacks backline. The hosts' defence was found wanting on several occasions in the first half. In once instance, the Lions made the All Blacks pay.
Liam Williams sparked a counterattack from within his own 22 when he broke the All Blacks line and found Jonathan Davies in support. What followed was a stunning example of decision-making and support play as the Lions kept the ball alive and eventually crossed the tryline through Sean O'Brien.
Owen Farrell failed to add the extras, though, and so the Lions went to the break trailing by a substantial five-point margin.
Perhaps this factored into their decision to kick for touch early in the second stanza. The penalty was well within Farrell's range, but the call was made to set up the lineout. The All Blacks forwards were equal to the defensive task. A turnover was forced, and the hosts cleared their lines.
By contrast, the All Blacks made most of their chances count. The Lions defence was stretched in the 55th minute, and Ioane finished in the left-hand corner. Barrett, who was criticised earlier this season for his wayward goal-kicking at Super Rugby level, nailed a difficult conversion to stretch the hosts' lead to 12 points.
The Lions suddenly found themselves chasing the game. While they managed to disrupt the All Blacks lineout on a couple of occasions, it was clear in the closing stages that the hosts were the fitter and stronger side.
The All Blacks also began to dominate the kicking and aerial parts of the contest as the game rushed towards a climax. TJ Perenara put up a box kick in the 70th minute, and Liam Williams failed to secure the high ball. The ball bounced kindly for Ioane, who collected it and then raced away to score his second try.
Replacement scrumhalf Rhys Webb crossed the line after the full-time hooter. That score, as well as Farrell's conversion, only served to add some respectability to the scoreline.
The result sees the All Blacks stretching the winning streak in New Zealand to 47 games. The last time they lost a game at home was against the Springboks in Hamilton in 2009.
All Blacks – Tries: Codie Taylor, Rieko Ioane (2). Conversions: Beauden Barrett (3). Penalties: Barrett (3).
British & Irish Lions – Tries: Sean O'Brien, Rhys Webb. Conversion: Owen Farrell. Penalty: Farrell.
All Blacks – 15 Ben Smith, 14 Israel Dagg, 13 Ryan Crotty, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Sam Cane, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Subs: 16 Nathan Harris, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Ardie Savea, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Aaron Cruden/Lima Sopoaga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.
British & Irish Lions – 15 Liam Williams, 14 Anthony Watson, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Ben Te’o, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Taulupe Faletau, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 George Kruis, 4 Alun Wyn Jones, 3 Tadgh Furlong, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Subs: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Maro Itoje, 20 Sam Warburton, 21 Rhys Webb, 22 Johnny Sexton, 23 Leigh Halfpenny.
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images