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Pressure mounts on Gatland's Lions as brilliant Blues win in style

Warren Gatland’s men were poor again as they suffered a 22-16 defeat at Eden Park.

Blues 22

Lions 16

Murray Kinsella reports from Eden Park, Auckland

THE BLUES PERFORMED a pre-match haka for the first time in their 21-year history at Eden Park tonight and there was something in the name.

He Toa Takitini, The Strength of Many.

It’s exactly what the Lions are supposed to represent, the strength of Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland coming together. But early on this tour of New Zealand, Warren Gatland’s men are struggling to create strength in their unity.

Ken Owens dejected It was a tough night for the Lions. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Instead, it was the Blues’ gathering of individuals from different backgrounds who were the more impressive unit, with tries from Rieko Ioane, the brilliant Sonny Bill Williams and replacement out-half Ihaia West firing them to victory.

Defeat for the Lions three days after a miserable performance against the Provincial Barbarians ramps up the pressure on Gatland’s squad and with the undefeated, Super Rugby-leading Crusaders to come on Saturday, things are only going to get tougher.

While the Lions’ scrum and maul were major strengths, their attacking display away from the set-piece was once again poor and they had only CJ Stander’s try – directly from the maul – to show for their efforts in Auckland.

Leigh Halfpenny’s penalty had taken the Lions 16-15 in front inside the final 10 minutes and it appeared they might survive a silly second-half yellow card for Liam Williams to win, but Tana Umaga’s Blues conjured their best try of the game to seal victory.

Williams was central, as he was all night, taking Steven Luatua’s deft offload and then offloading one-handed himself to the pacy West, who swerved around Johnny Sexton and Halfpenny to score under the posts, converting the try himself to the delight of the 40,639 crowd in Eden Park.

The Lions had a late, late chance to grab victory but the truth was that they didn’t deserve it.

inpho_01218723 Liam Williams was binned in the second half. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Their discipline was dire all night, as they gave up 13 penalties to allow the Blues to pressure them and also to lift their own pressure on the hosts, while there were defensive slips at key times too, with cohesion still in worrying scarcity.

The Blues are the worst of the five Super Rugby teams in New Zealand and on this evidence, the Lions are in for a difficult time on this side of the world. Gatland has some big players to unleash against the Crusaders this weekend – Conor Murray among them – but Lions fans will be deeply concerned.

With All Blacks centre Williams making an outstanding start, turning the ball over at one breakdown in the Blues’ 22 and then stripping Stander in contact, the Auckland side were 5-0 up inside seven minutes.

Talented out-half Stephen Perofeta kick passed wide to the right and then followed that with a long, lofted pass over the head of Jack Nowell to the explosive Rieko Ioane, who powered over to the left of the posts.

The Lions thought they had a rapid reply through Jared Payne – on his return to Eden Park, where he played for the Blues in 2011 – but the TMO review showed that Perofeta had managed to force the Ulster centre’s left foot into touch as he dotted down.

CJ Stander scores his sides first try Stander scored for the Lions. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Gatland’s side did roll ahead as the quarter mark approached, twice turning down kickable shots at goal to go to the corner, scoring off a patient maul on the second occasion, with Stander the man to burst over, allowing Halfpenny to convert.

With Courtney Lawes making a big impression, Halfpenny extended the Lions’ lead to 10-5 with a penalty from under the posts after one of several impressive scrums from the tourists, Jack McGrath and Dan Cole excelling in that area.

The Lions’ penalty count rose, however, and the Blues briefly thought they had a second try with 35 minutes played, Rieko Ioane streaking home from long range but the TMO review showed that Ofa Tu’ungafasi had tackled Dan Biggar from an offside position to force the ball loose.

That hit forced Biggar off the pitch for a HIA, with Johnny Sexton on in his place, and the Welshman did not return.

It looked as though the visitors were heading into the break with an encouraging lead, but Stander’s sloppy high tackle on Steven Luatua gave Perofeta a shot at goal. The 20-year-old struck the post, but disaster ensued for the Lions.

Sonny Bill Williams celebrates scoring their second try Sonny Bill Williams celebrates his try. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

Nowell scampered back and rose to tap the ball backwards just as Blues replacement TJ Faiane got into the air to compete for the bouncing ball, but Nowell only managed to knock it backwards behind the Lions’ tryline – as a lengthy TMO check showed.

The impressive Williams then won the race to the ball and slid in to dot it down skillfully with one hand. After the delay to go to Marius Jonker in the review box, Perofeta tapped over the conversion and the Blues led 12-10 at half time.

Umaga’s men very nearly pushed further ahead early in the second period, with the exciting Ioane again having a possible try chalked off by the very busy TMO.

This time, Nowell did well to tackle the young All Blacks wing’s foot into touch after Agustine Pulu’s pass along the ground found him.

The Blues were in the mood by now and hooker James Parsons’ big break out of their own 22 sparked the next wave of attacking quality, with the Ioane brothers very nearly combining to send Matt Duffie in, the wing just failing to gather in Akira’s offload.

Rieko Ioane celebrates scoring their first try with Matt Duffie Rieko Ioane was a threat for the Blues. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

The Lions’ atrocious discipline continued to be an issue and when Justin Tipuric was pinged for failing to roll away from a tackle for the second time in minutes, replacement out-half West sent the Blues 15-10 clear off the tee.

The theme did not change, however, and Liam Williams – on the pitch for less than 10 minutes after replacing the cramping Jared Payne – was sent to the bin as the game ticked towards the final quarter.

He first gave up a Lions’ penalty advantage by tackling Duffie in the air in the Blues’ 22, then when he did the very same thing just two minutes later closer to the halfway line – taking Duffie out with no realistic chance of winning the aerial ball – he was rightly binned.

The Lions managed those 10 minutes well, however, even reducing the deficit through a Halfpenny penalty when Pulu failed to roll away post-tackle.

But the lead didn’t last long, as Williams and West combined to finish the try of the game on a proud night for Umaga’s men.

The Lions had a final-minute lineout just five metres out but even their set-piece failed them when they needed it to fire most.

Blues scorers:

Tries: Reiko Ioane, Sonny Bill Williams, Ihaia West

Conversions: Stephen Perofeta [1 from 2], Ihaia West [1 from 1]

Penalties: Ihaia West [1 from 1]

Lions scorers:

Tries: CJ Stander

Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny [1 from 1]

Penalties: Leigh Halfpenny [2 from 2]

BLUES: Michael Collins; Matt Duffie (HIA – TJ Faiane ’41), George Moala (TJ Faiane ’66), Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Stephen Perofeta (Ihaia West ’52), Agustine Pulu (Sam Nock ’72); Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Alex Hodgman ’57), James Parsons (captain) (Hame Faiva ’72), Charlie Faumuina (Sione Mafileo ’57); Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (Jimmy Tupou ’57), Scott Scrafton; Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson (Kara Pryor ’66), Steven Luatua.

LIONS: Leigh Halfpenny; Jack Nowell, Jared Payne (Liam Williams ’48 (yellow card ’57)), Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly; Dan Biggar (Johnny Sexton ’36), Rhys Webb (Greig Laidlaw ’76); Jack McGrath (Joe Marler ’54), Ken Owens (captain) (Rory Best ’68), Dan Cole (Kyle Sinckler ’55); Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes (Iain Henderson ’75); James Haskell (Peter O’Mahony ’54), Justin Tipuric, CJ Stander.

Referee: Pascal Gaüzère [FFR].

Attendance: 40,639.

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Murray Kinsella

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