As I suggested on Saturday, the Lions did have excuses for a poor performance and it showed that excuses have some merit. For example, Sexton looked far better when he came on to replace the injured Biggar than he had on Saturday. That might suggest that Farrell, Moriaty, Warburton and Faletau, all of whom I praised on Saturday will be happy, but certainly Stander and Tipuric and for a chunk of the game Haskell looked good today as well. The contest for starting places in the back row is really intense. Webb, Owens and Halfpenny all looked good but their competitors all need a good chance to show their stuff without being jet-lagged and with more practise.
The English commentators rated the (English) locking pair above the pair that started on Saturday. I think that’s a tougher call - the scrum and lineout seemed to work better but the scrums weren’t bad on Saturday and the improved lineout could be due to a better hooker or more practise together or both. That said, Lawes and Itoje both played well, no doubt about that and didn’t do any harm to their chance of inclusion in the test starting squad.
The Lions overall showed vast improvement in the traditional Northern Hemisphere skills - scrummaging, lineout and some of their defensive work. The ruck work was largely good when going forward and sometimes good defensively.
The Blues, by contrast, were not as good as the Lions in the set piece, there is a reason they’re the worst of the Kiwi franchises this season. However, although they gave up a number of penalties at scrum time, they were not completely dominated at either of these facets of play, they won the breakdown and in the loose they were miles ahead and they regularly ripped the Lions to shreds. But for a forward pass that didn’t have to be and a kicker not chasing his kick forward to put a player onside the result would have been a lot more one-sided than it was. Yes, both sides also nearly scored a try that was denied by some excellent defence pushed the winger’s feet into touch as well
This is where the problem lies for the Lions. Can you really win a match but (hopefully) getting scrum penalties and perhaps breakdown penalties and the odd driving maul? Against another side that is doing the same yes, sure. Against a side that is going into contact, offloading the ball and scoring tries for fun, not so much based on today’s evidence. The Blues scored three tries and one sitter of a penalty and, as I commented above, missed two tries by silly mistakes, to win the match. The All Blacks won’t make such mistakes and will score more tries - they average 7.4 tries per game over their last 10 games, even with a low conversion rate you need to be scoring more than 37 points to beat them on tries alone!
Despite the loss, the Lions coaches will be happier, the players have improved from Saturday. This loss is not how the tour will be judged. But it does set down a marker both ways. The population of New Zealand, and their rugby players, have looked at the Lions and seen that they can be beaten and know how. They will look at the Blues and, while the Blue where at full strength and the other Super Rugby teams might not be, the Blues are by some margin the worst of the Super Rugby sides too… The Kiwis will expect to win the rest of these matches and will let the Lions know that. The Lions will know they expect to improve still, and the matches going forwards are going to get harder.
It’s also not clear how bad Dan Biggar’s head is. He was taken off for a legal hit and led to a HIA from which he didn’t return. Was it just a case that he’d played almost a half and they were going to replace him anyway, so they decided to hook him then, or is there a concussion? If so, is his tour already over?
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