There’s that infamous line that a draw is like kissing your cousin. This 31-all draw was nothing like that, at least for the spectators. Yes, both sides will look at missed chances and rue them, particularly the Canes who finished by far the stronger, but on the other side of that the Lions will look at a big lead that they let slip.
In the first half it seemed that the whistle of Poite, combined with an intercept try made and sealed in Scotland, a big hit from Seymour causing a loose pass, intercepted by Laidlaw, who passed to Seymour to run it in under the posts when the Hurricanes were pressing hard on attack was looking like it was going to be the story. I’m not blaming the referee for blowing the whistle, the Canes were sloppy and deserved to get pinged. But the Hurricanes adjusted, the frequency of penalties fell off before half-time and the match started to even up.
The scrums were pretty even, both sides were dominant at various points and no side dominated in the penalty count. The lineouts were much the same although judging by eye the Lions seems to have cleaner ball and make a mess of the Canes lineout delivery on occasion - it wasn’t a clear dominance it was an edging of the lineouts.
The Lions backs suffered with an early injury and everyone moving. They clearly had selected some players to see how they went as potential cover - Nowell at full back for example - but when Henshaw went off in the 18th minute to be replaced by Halfpenny, North moved in to centre, Nowell was out to the wing and Halfpenny slotted in at full-back. It didn’t disrupt their play that much but it did disrupt those meta-plans.
On the other side, although much was made of the All Blacks returned to play for the Canes, the home team were still missing their first choice fetcher, scrum half and 10. All of their stars showed up and played well, although Milne-Skudder had a couple of blemishes and Savea had a quieter night than he might have liked, simply because the ball didn’t reach him that often and he tends not to get involved closer in, although he did come and look a bit more than usual. The All Blacks will, in particular, have noted Laumape and I suspect we might see his name on the reserves bench if they start with Alby and SBW on Saturday. Fifita might not make this week but come The Rugby Championship or the November tests, I’d expect to seem him playing a bigger role.
There are a lot of pundits saying this player, that player, the other player have pushed their way into contention for the Lions test side. Lawes was subbed after 60 minutes which has to suggest he was being rested for Saturday. However, to be brutal about it, this Lions side only looked comfortable when the opposition was giving them a lot of soft penalties or when they were down to 14 players. As soon as any of those conditions stopped, things looked very different. There wasn’t dominance at the scrum, in the lineout, there wasn’t a big dominance in turnovers or breaks. The Lions did have a clear lead in beating defenders, but the Canes had a clear lead in offloads, metres made and carries, both sides made about the same number of metres per carry at around 3.5 (the Canes edged it by a few cms).
It’s important to remember, as if any of us needed a reminder that, despite what Gatland said earlier in the tour, there is an appreciable step up for all these players when wearing the silver fern. Did Lawes and Henderson look better today than Jones and Kruis on Saturday? Somewhat, yes. But consider the opposition pack: a group of solid, workman-like Super Rugby players six of whom are unlikely to win an All Blacks cap, one of whom as a prop at 26 will probably pick up odd caps and train with the squad until after the next world cup, and one of whom was released as a peripheral player to play in this match because he was really unlikely to get a game against the Lions otherwise. Stepping up from that to play against the All Blacks is a step up in power, speed and intensity and Lawes and Henderson didn’t look that dominant to me today - there’s no indication they’ll be able to impose themselves on Saturday if that’s the plan.
I’ve seen a lot of people say “Away from Eden Park the All Blacks are beatable, this is the Lions’ chance.” Eden Park really is a fortress beyond all others (they last lost there last millennium) but the last time they lost anywhere in New Zealand is a long time ago, and this performance hasn’t inspired me to think this Saturday will be the day.
Although it’s an adage from a different sport, this was really a game of two halves. The Lions will feel they should have put the Hurricanes away while they had the chance. The Hurricanes will be left ruing poor discipline in the early stages and a missed opportunity to steal the game at the death. But for the fans it was another thriller.
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