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Dublin: 2 °C Friday 15 November, 2019

Farrell boots Lions to momentum-boosting victory against Crusaders

Warren Gatland’s men should have won more comfortably as they spurned opportunities.

Crusaders 3

Lions 12

Murray Kinsella reports from AMI Stadium, Christchurch

THE LIONS MADE harder work of it than it should have been, spurning multiple try-scoring chances, but with an impressive XV starting against the Crusaders, this felt like Warren Gatland’s men properly launching this tour.

The boot of Owen Farrell provided all 12 of their points – he struck four of his five penalties successfully – as the Lions delivered another improved performance following Wednesday night’s defeat to the Blues.

Liam Williams The Lions created chances but couldn't get over the line. Source: Photosport/Martin Hunter/INPHO

Farrell and Conor Murray, both starting for the first time on this tour, were excellent as the halfback pairing in the opening half hour, but they were separated after only 30 minutes when Jonathan Davies’ head injury saw Johnny Sexton introduced at out-half and Farrell shifting to inside centre.

Murray led the kicking game masterfully, as the Lions showed their tactical intelligence and controlled the territory all evening, while Andy Farrell’s defence delivered an immense performance, smothering the previously-superb Crusaders attack.

The back row was very impressive for the Lions, particularly Irish flankers Sean O’Brien and the outstanding Peter O’Mahony, both of whom married technical excellence with an eye-opening work rate and aggressive attitude.

George Kruis and Alun Wyn Jones were combative and muscular in the second row, while Tadhg Furlong shone at scrum time on his first start of the tour. There were moments of class from Ben Te’o in midfield too, as he kept the pressure firmly on Robbie Henshaw for the Test 12 shirt.

The prospect of a Sexton-Farrell 10-12 combination is also of interest, even if Gatland has said the Lions haven’t been considering it. With his hand forced, Gatland would have been impressed.

Bryn Hall is tackled by Conor Murray and Anthony Watson Conor Murray was excellent for the Lions. Source: Photosport/Martin Hunter/INPHO

But for all those positives, the Lions struggled to truly put the Crusaders away, repeatedly failing to turn visits into the Kiwi side’s 22 into tries. They beat defenders regularly and produced nine clean linebreaks, but couldn’t find the finishing touch that has eluded them so far on this tour.

A victory against the best team in Super Rugby is hugely positive for Gatland’s squad and will build belief, but they will need to discover a clinical edge if they are to have any hope of Test series success against the All Blacks.

Fortunately, there is still time for that and the process continues on Tuesday in Dunedin against the Highlanders, before we see what will be close to a full Test team against the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua next Saturday, a week out from the opening Test.

For now, improvement in Christchurch will do.

The Lions immediately looked like a more cohesive unit than they had against the Blues, with Murray and Farrell combining intelligently and O’Mahony nicking a Crusaders lineout as O’Brien made his presence felt.

Owen Farrell kicks a penalty Farrell slots a penalty. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A high tackle from Matt Todd on Te’o allowed Farrell to open the scoring off the tee in the 13th minute, before a big scrum penalty earned by Furlong saw the Englishman make it 6-0.

The Crusaders were struggling to hold a slippy ball, though the Lions suffered a blow when Stuart Hogg departed covered in blood after Murray’s elbow accidentally caught him, Anthony Watson coming on as a permanent replacement.

O’Mahony and O’Brien were in the thick of a bout of handbags after one Crusaders scrum penalty, utterly unwilling to take a backwards step, but Richie Mo’unga was able to reduce the deficit with a penalty when George North went off his feet while jackaling.

Despite their excellent build-up play and kicking game, the Lions spurned a scoring chance after regaining their restart, with Farrell’s final pass to Davies going to ground five metres out.

Farrell opened up a six-point gap again when the Crusaders strayed offside in the 31st minute, just after Sexton had replaced the concussed Davies, meaning Farrell shifted to 12.

Then came the big scare of the half for Gatland’s side.

Stuart Hogg goes off with a blood injury with Prav Mathema Hogg was forced off in the first half. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Murray threw a loose pass in the Crusaders half and Mo’unga scooped it up to burst away. Many would have backed the out-half’s pace, but O’Brien did superbly to stay with him, allowing the Lions to scramble and Murray produced a huge tackle on the next phase.

With the pressure on for the Lions, they twice gave up penalties but the Crusaders went to the corner on both occasions and couldn’t convert. First, they drove to the line but a TMO review couldn’t show a try, then Jordan Taufua knocked-on the transfer at the maul on the second five-metre lineout.

It was a let-off for the Lions but they would have been disappointed to leave another visit into the Crusaders 22 just before the break empty-handed.

Farrell had a chance to further extend the lead early in the second half after Tuafua failed to release after his tackle, but the Saracens playmaker missed from in front of the posts with his fourth penalty – although he was certain it had been successful.

Te’o threw a poor pass a minute later, having done the hard work in breaking through off O’Mahony’s pass, Liam Williams left frustrated as he knocked-on down the left wing.

Taulupe Faletau Taulupe Faletau gathers the ball in for the Lions. Source: Photosport/Martin Hunter/INPHO

Despite their dominance of possession and territory – and their number of scoring chances – Gatland would have been worried by the lack of a Lions try and there was soon a reminder of the danger.

Crusaders centre Jack Goodhue stepped back inside Farrell and burst beyond Sexton, following the break up with a clever grubber into the corner for George Bridge, but the pacy left wing spilled as he attempted to gather and Lions fans exhaled in relief.

The TMO was called for as the game headed towards the closing quarter, Liam Williams having chipped ahead after Watson freed him down the left. Watson gathered in the kick and touched down, but the review showed that Williams had knocked-on in the air just before.

Next up, Watson made a scintillating break from deep in his half, then hitting Sexton on the left wing but CJ Stander – just on for O’Brien – spilled the ball when the Irish out-half passed back inside.

Another opportunity spurned and there were more of them before the end, but Gatland will take this victory against one of the best club sides in the world, having utterly shut their attack down.

Crusaders scorers:

Penalties: Richie Mo’unga [1 from 1]

Lions scorers:

Penalties: Owen Farrell [4 from 5]

CRUSADERS: Isreal Dagg; Seta Tamanivalu, Jack Goodhue, David Havili, George Bridge (Tim Bateman ’66); Richie Mo’unga (Mitch Hunt ’75), Bryn Hall (Mitch Drummond ’62); Joe Moody (Wyatt Crockett ’51), Codie Taylor (Ben Funnell ’51), Owen Franks (Michael Alaalatoa ’51); Luke Romano (Quinten Strange ’56), Sam Whitelock (captain); Heiden Bedwell-Curtis (Jed Brown ’62), Matt Todd, Jordan Taufua.

LIONS: Stuart Hogg (Anthony Watson ’20); George North, Jonathan Davies (Johnny Sexton ’29), Ben Te’o, Liam Williams; Owen Farrell, Conor Murray; Mako  (Jack McGrath ’62), Jamie George (Ken Owens ’66), Tadhg Furlong (Dan Cole ’66); Alun Wyn Jones (captain), George Kruis (Maro Itoje ’62); Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien (CJ Stander ’56), Taulupe Faletau.

Replacement not used: Rhys Webb.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal [FFR].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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