Ihaia West scored a stunning 74th-minute try to hand the Blues a thrilling 22-16 win over the British & Irish Lions in Auckland on Wednesday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
For the Lions, it’s an early defeat in what has been an utterly unconvincing start to their tour to New Zealand. For the Blues, it’s a moment to bask in the afterglow of a historic achievement as they became the first Kiwi Super Rugby side to beat the British & Irish team.
Lions coach Warren Gatland had made a full 15 changes to the starting XV that beat the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians 13-7 over the weekend, and this may have been a considerable contributing factor to an often disjointed effort, but the Blues were ultimately full value for victory.
The Auckland-based side might be bottom of the New Zealand Super Rugby conference, but on Wednesday, they produced a committed and clinical performance that the Lions simply could not contain.
Although the amalgamated outfit had managed to edge their way into a one-point lead with less than 10 minutes to play, Sonny Bill Williams then produced a typical moment of magic as he broke away before deftly offloading to West, who darted away to score the match-winning try.
After performing a resounding rendition of their unique 'He Toa Takitini' haka – in honour of Jonah Lomu, and Kurtis Haiu – the Blues had made the perfect start as rookie flyhalf Stephen Perofeta produced a beautiful pass for Rieko Ioane to score in the seventh minute.
Perofeta then delivered on defence as his superb scrambling tackle prevented Lions centre Jared Payne from scoring in the corner soon after, but the visitors slowly began to work their way into the contest through some patient build-up play, particularly among the forwards.
Quite aptly, then, it was from a strong lineout drive – after the Lions twice turned down kicks at goal – that South African-born CJ Stander crashed over to score, with a subsequent penalty to Leigh Halfpenny pushing the tourists into a handy 10-5 lead.
The second quarter descended into a stop-start affair as a string of penalties were dished out, while both teams continued to contest fiercely at the breakdowns, but the Blues would find the means to launch one late attacking onslaught.
That endeavour ultimately resulted in a penalty that Perofeta lined up for posts. Yet from a rather straightforward angle, his kick rebounded off the upright, and as the ball went loose, ever-present Williams won the chase to dot down in a key moment just before the break.
It signalled a momentum shift as the Blues made all the running after the restart, and which reaped due reward through a 53rd-minute penalty to West that sent the hosts back into a five-point lead.
Matters deteriorated further for the Lions when replacement Liam Williams was shown a yellow card just before the hour mark for a repeated offence of playing an opponent in the air.
In his absence, though, it would be the Lions who scored the only points, and largely against the run of play, with a second penalty from Halfpenny reducing the deficit to two points. The fullback then stepped up to slot another three-pointer to edge his side ahead.
However, Williams and West then combined to stun the Lions, who squandered one late attacking opportunity to add to their disappointment.
Blues – Tries: Rieko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams, Ihaia West. Conversions: Stephen Perofeta, West. Penalty: West.
British & Irish Lions – Try: CJ Stander. Conversion: Leigh Halfpenny. Penalties: Halfpenny (3).
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Subs: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Ihaia West, 23 TJ Faiane.
British & Irish Lions – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Jack McGrath.
Subs: 16 Rory Best, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Iain Henderson, 19 Peter O'Mahony, 20 Greig Laidlaw, 21 Johnny Sexton, 23 Liam Williams.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images