It has been a turbulent week for Warren Gatland and the British & Irish Lions squad in New Zealand. Wednesday witnessed defeat at the hands of the Blues, New Zealand’s lowest ranked Super Rugby franchise, before victory against the Crusaders, the country’s high-flying, unbeaten side.
As the tour of New Zealand got underway Gatland promises all players would have at least one opportunity to start a match and prove their worth, and it’s fair to say, Wednesday’s side was not a Test team, while Saturday’s outing against the Christchurch-based Crusaders had many shades of a starting XV.
When you take into account the fact the Crusaders had won 14 out of 14 matches thus far, scoring three or more tries in all but one game, they were rightly billed as the Lions’ biggest Test ahead of their first outing against the All Blacks on June 24.
With this in mind, conceding just one penalty kick is evidence of a remarkable defensive effort from Gatland’s men.
Owen Farrell and Conor Murray emerged from this 12-3 win as an almost certain half-back starting partnership for the Lions.
Murray’s tactical kicking not only pegged back the Crusaders but, allied with alert chasers who cut down the space for the catcher and also blocked off room on the outside, gave them few outs. He kicked the ball on 17 occasions, more than the opposition scrum-halves in the first three matches combined, dealing with slow ball himself.
Farrell’s kicking also hurt the Crusaders, but no more than his distribution. His ability to stand square and hold the defence gave the Lions width which they failed to exploit, something which must now change.
Farrell played a minor role on the 2013 tour, but rest assured he will be a linchpin of this tour.
Ben Te’o also staked a strong claim with a fine display in midfield, but the other great encouragement for Gatland was the way in which the Lions pack dominated at the scrum and line-out.
While there are places up for grabs in the pack, George Kruis’ dominance in the set-piece puts him on the verge of being a sure starter, while Irish counterparts Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander are now locked in a battle for a place in the back-row alongside Toby Faletau, who has shown excellent athleticism and ball-carrying so far at No. 8.
Next up for the Lions is a clash with the Highlanders and an opportunity for Stander to further his claims, while Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph will be keen to impress in midfield.