Belfast Telegraph

British and Irish Lions suffer first defeat to the Blues

Blues 22 British and Irish Lions 16

The British and Irish Lions suffered a demoralising 22-16 defeat to the Blues that raises serious questions about their readiness to face the All Blacks, having put in two unconvincing performances since arriving in New Zealand.

The Lions were outscored three tries to one by their adventures opponents, but 11 points from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny looked to have edged them towards a second consecutive victory at Eden Park.

But a late try from replacement fly-half Ihaia West secured a famous victory for the Auckland side, which leaves the Lions facing serious questions after losing to the worst-ranked Super Rugby side that they will face on the tour.

Head coach Warren Gatland must have been wondering how the Lions were trailing at half-time, given his side had dominated possession and had the advantage in both the scrum and the line-out. That was partly due to the Blues taking their chances where the Lions didn’t, and also through the ineptitude of the match officials to spot a knock-on through a review when Sonny Bill Williams scored on the stroke of half-time.

Like last Saturday, the Lions found themselves trailing early, though they could and should have been winning. With an early overlap in the fourth minute, the ball was shipped through the hands of Robbie Henshaw, Leigh Halfpenny and Elliot Daly before Jared Payne found himself aiming for the corner. That he had the ball without any of those named committing a tackler allowed full-back Michael Collins to shift over and make a covering tackle which proved enough to force the Ireland centre into touch as he grounded the ball.

The Lions would pay for their wasteful finishing, as the dangerous wing, Rieko Ioane, showed just how clinical he can be when the Lions were caught narrow. With Jack Nowell shifting in-field, Sonny Bill Williams floated a lovely miss-pass out to Ioane, who turned on the afterburners and out-paced Nowell, leaving the Exeter man flapping in his wake, to score, though fly-half Stephen Perofeta missed the simple conversion effort.

The Lions would hit back though with good old fashioned Northern Hemisphere rugby. After winning back-to-back penalties for ruck infringements by George Moala and Akira Ioane, Rieko’s brother, Itoje was able to claim quick lineout ball to set-up the driving maul that allowed CJ Stander to power his way over for the try, with Halfpenny adding the extras to put the Lions ahead before adding a penalty after Ofa Tu’ungafasi collapsed a scrum.

The Blues could have bagged their second when a controversial tackle from Tu’ungafusi on Biggar forced a turnover and ended the fly-half’s game. The loosehead prop made no effort to get back onside after a clearing Blues kick, although he did appear to wait for Biggar to run five metres that put him onside under World Rugby’s rulings. The turnover allowed Ioane to romp clear and score, though the try was chalked off after a TMO review judged Tu’ungafasi to be offside.

The second try would come though. Lions assistant coach Rob Howley talked on Tuesday of the Lions’ ability to play “rugby chaos”, but it would be the Blues who would capitalise on it to lead at the break. A Perofeta penalty effort struck the upright and the Lions were guilty of not collecting possession, with Nowell allowing the ball to bounce before competing for it with replacement TJ Faiane. The ball was palmed over the try line by what appeared to be a combination of the pair, but TMO Marius Jonker ruled it to be off the hand of Nowell, and it was Williams who would react first to beat Stander to touch the ball down for a try.

The Blues nearly bagged a third early in the second half, which started without Biggar as he failed to return from a head injury assessment, but last-gasp tackle from Nowell forced Ioane into touch as he dived for the line, and they had to settle for penalty form their visit to the Lions 22, with replacement Ihaia West successfully kicking at goal. The Blues were growing in confidence though, and that swelled when Liam Williams was sin-binned just nine minutes after coming on for Payne when he tackled Matt Duffie in the air for the second time in two minutes.

The Lions would cope well without Williams, winning the 10-minute period 3-0 thanks to Halfpenny penalty, and a second one in the 71st minute nudges the Lions ahead. But disaster struck for the touring side, and it came through the destructive Bristol-bound No 8 Steven Luatua. His offload to Williams saw the All Blacks centre break clear, and he popped the ball up to West to go over unopposed and condemn the Lions to a first defeat of the tour. It’s unlikely to be the last.

Blues: Michael Collins; Matt Duffie, George Moala (TJ Faiane, 66), Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Stephen Perofeta (Ihaia West, 51), Augustine Pulu (Sam Nock, 71); Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Alex Hodgman, 57), James Parsons (Hame Faiva, 71), Charlie Faumuina (Sione Mafileo, 57); Gerard Cowley-Tuioti (Jimmy Tupou), Scott Scrafton; Akira Ioane, Blake Gibson (Kara Pryor, 66), Steven Luatua.

British and Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny; Jack Nowell, Jared Payne (Liam Williams, 48), Robbie Henshaw, Elliot Daly; Dan Biggar (Jonathan Sexton, 36), Rhys Webb (Greig Laidlaw, 75); Jack McGrath (Joe Marler, 54), Ken Owens (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.

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