CJ Stander made a try-scoring debut for the British & Irish Lions but three touchdowns from the Blues, including Ihaia West’s stunning 75th-minute clincher, handed Warren Gatland’s men their first defeat of the tour.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS TOUR – MATCH 2: Wednesday, June 7
BLUES 22 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 16, Eden Park, Auckland
Scorers: Blues: Tries: Rieko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams, Ihaia West; Cons: Stephen Perofeta, Ihaia West; Pen: Ihaia West
British & Irish Lions: Try: CJ Stander; Con: Leigh Halfpenny; Pens: Leigh Halfpenny 3
HT: Blues 12 British & Irish Lions 10
Late tries in both halves from Sonny Bill Williams and replacement Ihaia West steered the Blues to a famous victory, their potent attack and skilful offloading game being rewarded in rain-hit Auckland.
A tight TMO decision went the hosts’ way when Williams’ score was awarded and converted just before half-time, and although two Leigh Halfpenny penalties turned a 15-10 deficit into a 16-15 lead, Williams and West combined for a magical match winner with five minutes remaining.
Undoubtedly this was a step forward for the Lions performance-wise, but they continued to fail foul of French referee Pascal Gauzere’s whistle, conceding 13 penalties and two free-kicks in all and having replacement Liam Williams sin-binned midway through the second half.
There is little time for the Lions to mull over this result as the Crusaders, who are top of the New Zealand Conference in Super Rugby, lie in wait and the standard of opposition is only set to rise as Britain and Ireland’s elite look for some much-needed cohesion and cutting edge behind the scrum.
The Lions’ set piece game was strong against the Blues – the fifth-ranked of New Zealand’s provincial sides – but they did not get their full reward from it, with the lineout malfunctioning at crucial stages, including a mistimed effort involving Rory Best and Maro Itoje late on when they were just a few metres out from the try-line.
There were Lions debuts for Ireland’s Jared Payne, Robbie Henshaw, Jack McGrath and CJ Stander, as well as Peter O’Mahony who was a second half replacement. Prop McGrath was the pick of the bunch, putting in a robust scrummaging display and tallying up twelve tackles before he was called ashore in the 54th minute.
The St. Mary’s College clubman said afterwards: “We have only been here a week and we are building nicely as a squad. It is such a talented squad, it’s frustrating. We will dissect it tomorrow and move on.
“I was chatting to one of the Blues lads afterwards and he was saying they have only one more game after this. They’ve been together for a whole season and us coming together, to do as well as we did is testament to us as a squad.”
“We are going along nicely, it is just a few things didn’t go our way and that is part of the game unfortunately. They are a great bunch of lads, we are still getting to know each other but training has been really good.
“The squad is so strong and there is so much competition but I am learning a lot from players and coaches and just really enjoying it. This is another building block for us, the Blues are a tough side with a lot of internationals in their team. To get it right further down the line and lose one or two along the way, I would definitely take that.”
In contrast to last Saturday in Whangarei, the Lions came roaring out of the blocks at Eden Park, building the phases in the Blues 22 with a much-improved tempo. All Black Williams, however, proved a thorn throughout the opening half, first showcasing his defensive skills with a turnover on the deck and a rip off Stander.
And having weathered the early Lions storm, it was the Blues who struck first. Impressive winger Rieko Ioane burst clear down the left after Stephen Perofeta – making his first start for the hosts – released him with a fine long pass.
The young Blues out-half could not add the extras, though, and the Lions almost mustered an immediate response – centre Payne ruled to be in touch over in the left corner after the Lions had again stretched the defence right and then left.
The tourists were clearly in the mood now, superb interplay between Itoje and Justin Tipuric in midfield then released James Haskell through the middle and when a kickable penalty was sent to the corner, the pack got to work. Twice they forced the Blues to concede penalties on their own line, and after going to the corner again the dam finally broke and Munster favourite Stander barged over at the back of a maul.
Halfpenny knocked over the conversion from the right and the Lions’ high tempo showed no sign of abating, Itoje and Courtney Lawes leading the defensive line, and when Dan Cole won a scrum penalty from bang in front, Halfpenny deservedly stretched the Lions lead out to 10-5.
The Lions looked comfortable, if a tad ill-disciplined, in defence as the electric Ioane had a second score ruled out for offside. But, on the stroke of half-time, the heavens opened in Auckland and the gods did not smile on the Lions.
Perofeta’s penalty attempt after a high tackle from Stander came back off the left hand post and in the ensuing melee Williams reacted quickest to dot down the loose ball. TMO Marius Jonker ruled that the last touch before Williams’ grounding came off Jack Nowell rather than TJ Faiane who avoided a potential knock-on. Perofeta converted and the home side went in 12-10 to the good.
The first score of the second period was always going to be important and it looked like the Blues had found it when that man Ioane went over in the left corner but a crucial cover tackle from Nowell forced him into touch.
With Payne then going off due to a calf, Elliot Daly was shuffled into midfield alongside Henshaw, who grew in influence with a couple of drilled touchfinders to pin the Blues back, and Liam Williams came onto the wing. Jonathan Sexton had stayed on at out-half for Dan Biggar (head injury) as well, but it was the Blues replacement out-half West who struck next, slotting a penalty to make it 15-10 to the hosts.
Warren Gatland continued to call on his replacements, Munster captain O’Mahony coming on for his debut in the back row before the Lions’ hopes were hit when Welshman Williams was shown a yellow card for taking out Matt Duffie in the air twice in quick succession.
But despite the numerical disadvantage, the Lions rolled up their sleeves and after building the phases, they won a penalty that Halfpenny slotted. The men in red now only trailed by two points and with their driving maul a constant threat and Williams back in the fray, they continued to turn the screw up front.
With an all-new front row they won a scrum penalty and Halfpenny – the man of the series in Australia four years ago – was nerveless again to put the Lions back in front at 16-15 with under 10 minutes remaining.
However, the Blues had the final say with a stunning counter attack from a rather aimless Sexton kick. Steven Luatua released Sonny Bill Williams with an inviting offload, the big centre bursting over halfway and linking sweetly with West who cut a great angle to speed away from O’Mahony, Sexton and last man Halfpenny and score a fantastic try.
West added the extras himself and while the Lions had their chances in the closing stages – most notably from that lineout near the left corner – it was the Blues who held on for a three-tries-to-one success.
TIME LINE: 7 minutes – Blues try: Rieko Ioane – 5-0; conversion: missed by Stephen Perofeta – 5-0; 18 mins – B&I Lions try: CJ Stander – 5-5; conversion: Leigh Halfpenny – 5-7; 25 mins – B&I Lions penalty: Leigh Halfpenny – 5-10; 40+2 mins – Blues penalty: missed by Stephen Perofeta – 5-10; 40+2 mins – Blues try: Sonny Bill Williams – 10-10; conversion: Stephen Perofeta – 12-10; Half-time – Blues 12 B&I Lions 10; 53 mins – Blues penalty: Ihaia West – 15-10; 57 mins – B&I Lions yellow card: Liam Williams; 66 mins – B&I Lions penalty: Leigh Halfpenny – 15-13; 71 mins – B&I Lions penalty: Leigh Halfpenny – 15-16; 75 mins – Blues try: Ihaia West – 20-16; conversion: Ihaia West – 22-16; Full-time – Blues 22 B&I Lions 16
BLUES: Michael Collins; Matt Duffie, George Moala, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Stephen Perofeta, Augustine Pulu; Ofa Tu’ungafasi, James Parsons (capt), Charlie Faumuina, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, Scott Scrafton, Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson, Steven Luatua.
Replacements used: TJ Faiane for Duffie (40+1 mins-half-time), Ihaia West for Perofeta (52), Alex Hodgman for Tu’ungafasi (58), Sione Mafileo for Faumuina, Jimmy Tupou for Cowley-Tuioti (all 58), Kara Pryor for Gibson, Faiane for Moala (both 66), Hame Faiva for Parsons, Sam Nock for Pulu (both 72).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Leigh Halfpenny (Toulon/Wales); Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs/England), Jared Payne (Ulster/Ireland), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Ireland), Elliot Daly (Wasps/England); Dan Biggar (Ospreys/Wales), Rhys Webb (Ospreys/Wales); Jack McGrath (Leinster/Ireland), Ken Owens (Scarlets/Wales) (capt), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers/England), Maro Itoje (Saracens/England), Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints/England), James Haskell (Wasps/England), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys/Wales), CJ Stander (Munster/Ireland).
Replacements used: Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/Ireland) for Biggar (36 mins), Liam Williams (Scarlets/Wales) for Payne (48), Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Ireland) for Haskell, Joe Marler (Harlequins/England) for McGrath (both 54), Kyle Sinckler (Harlequins/England) for Cole (55), Rory Best (Ulster/Ireland) for Owens (69), Iain Henderson (Ulster/Ireland) for Lawes, Greig Laidlaw (Gloucester/Scotland) for Webb (both 76).
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)