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No surprises from the Lions' 'washing machine' but a major step forward

The Crusaders were frustrated to get drawn into a kicking battle, but the Lions’ class showed.

Murray Kinsella reports from New Zealand

THERE HAS BEEN plenty of talk about “rugby chaos” in the past week on this Lions tour, but it wasn’t a great surprise that their best performance yet was based on structured attack, superb kicking, smothering defence and a muscular set-piece.

CJ Stander and Conor Murray celebrate winning CJ Stander and Conor Murray after the Lions' win. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Those were the foundations that it had seemed obvious the Lions would build their efforts in New Zealand on and while there were moments of counter-attacking class – Anthony Watson’s pace was useful – in the 12-3 win over the Crusaders, those solid core elements were the real difference.

The Kiwi franchise didn’t seem happy with how the game had unfolded, expressing some regret that the ball had been kicked in play more than 60 times over the course of the 80 minutes, but Warren Gatland won’t care for a second.

The Crusaders were also deeply frustrated with Mathieu Raynal’s refereeing of the scrum, but again Gatland will be satisfied to see what the Lions viewed as a degree of dominance at the set-piece.

The kicking control from Conor Murray and Owen Farrell was particularly excellent for the Lions as they kicked 32 times in play, turning the Crusaders at important times to gain territory and sending up hanging contestables at other points.

“We got into a kicking battle and we practiced it all week,” said Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson.

“We have an aerial skillset that we just didn’t nail. Conor Murray is absolutely world-class, he just hangs it up there perfectly and we didn’t deal with that.

“It wasn’t a spectacle we’re used to, no tries. They got the job done, it was a desperate Lions side and well done to them, they did what they had to.”

Despite the excellent kicks, Gatland pointed to the need for the Lions’ wings to “get up in the air and compete a bit more,” suggesting that Liam Williams’ yellow card for a tackle in the air against the Blues brought some hesitance.

Stuart Hogg and Conor Murray celebrate winning Stuart Hogg and Conor Murray make up after the scrum-half accidentally injured the fullback. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But the Lions boss was delighted with his playmakers’ game management, which left the Crusaders frustrated as they got drawn into a fight for territory that they were always going to struggle to win.

“Not really,” said Robertson when asked if the Lions’ tactics had surprised the Crusaders. “We trained to make sure that… we call it the washing machine – we go back, go forward, go back, go forward and they put the ball in behind you.

“We just didn’t deal with it the way we wanted to. We had opportunities, chances and the crowd’s frustration with the ref was a reflection on the game. We had to be better at dealing with them on the field.”

Gatland was similarly pleased with the defensive performance from his team as the Lions utterly suffocated an attack that has torn teams apart in Super Rugby all year.

Out-half Richie Mo’unga saw his influence limited, while the Crusaders’ wings were often starved of quality possession by the Lions’ linespeed, decision-making and tackle technique.

It was a great night for defence coach Andy Farrell, particularly given how the Lions limited the Crusaders to just five offloads – the Lions had six – as they clearly learned from the Blues defeat.

“It was one of the more frenetic linespeeds that we’ve come under,” said Robertson.

“They put us under a lot of pressure and we just couldn’t get quick enough ball to get outside them. There were some big bodies flying at you and with those conditions our skillset was really pressured and we couldn’t quite convert.”

Israel Dagg during their Haka The Crusaders were frustrated. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The Lions had the better of the forward exchanges too, with George Kruis leading the lineout with typical intelligence, Peter O’Mahony competing ferociously on the Crusaders’ throw and the maul once again showing promising signs.

With four scrum penalties on top off all of that, and a better standard of ball-carrying featuring stronger footwork, it was an outstanding game from the Lions pack.

“We relish the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with a pack like that,” said Kruis. “We talk about how we want to be a brutal pack, a set-piece dominant pack. I think today we showed good signs of that.”

The Lions did have the negatives of two failed HIAs for Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Davies, with both of those men now certain to miss Tuesday’s game against the Highlanders as they face “a minimum of six days” out, according to Gatland.

The back three will be an area of concern for the Lions head coach, with few players really putting their hand up in that area so far. Leigh Halfpenny showed his solidity against the Blues at times, while Watson’s attacking class was clear against the Crusaders, but Gatland needs his wings to step up.

Better performances in that area might help the Lions get over the tryline too, with just two tries scored in the opening three games.

But there were nine clean linebreaks from Gatland’s men in Christchurch and he is hopeful that the finishing touch will come swiftly.

“I would have liked to have seen Anthony [Watson] take Israel Dagg on one-on-one there because we know what footwork and how quick he is, but he’s given the pass to Johnny Sexton and then CJ [Stander]‘s lost that one,” said Gatland after the Crusaders game.

Peter O'Mahony with Luke Romano in the line-out The Lions' lineout was excellent. Source: Photosport/Martin Hunter/INPHO

“I think there’s a pass by Ben Te’o that’s gone over the top and then the knock-on from Liam Williams where Anthony’s potentially created something. And another couple of opportunities, so we’re creating them and we need to get better at them.

“But we’re up against the most creative team in Super Rugby at the moment and I thought they didn’t create a lot of chances. The ball was slippery out there, it was tough holding on to it in the conditions and we saw a few players slip over.

“But we are creating some chances and, yes, we need to get better. The more time that we are together, the more the players get used to and familiar with the voices and the time in training together and hopefully out on the field we do finish those chances.”

All in all, a fine evening’s work for the Lions, even if what they won’t have surprised the watching Steve Hansen.

The issue for the Lions is that the All Blacks are going to be a lot better at dealing with some of these core elements.

“We thought they were going to play that way, exactly the way they did and we couldn’t negate it,” said Robertson.

“Steve knows that, he’ll have done a lot of homework and the All Blacks’ kick-chase work and ability to turn them around is probably a bit better than our ability to do it tonight.”

Whatever about surprises, the Test series looks a whole lot more interesting now.

Updated at 10.00

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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