Conor Murray sets the standards as likely test team find groove

Much like the Lions test team he will grace at Eden Park next Saturday, Conor Murray is coming nicely to the boil.

Saturday night’s shutdown of the Maori All Blacks and an assertion of forward power and excellent game management in the relentless downpour that struck the Rotorua International Stadium throughout the 80 minutes are signs that Warren Gatland’s frontline British and Irish Lions who will go toe-to-toe with the All Blacks over three tests are growing in confidence and building momentum after two solid wins.

Separate them out from the midweek defeats they had little to do with and the victories over an All Black-laden Crusaders team that has dominated Super Rugby season as well as a Maori collective with the potential to wreak havoc point to a test series far less lop-sided than New Zealanders might care to believe.

Murray epitomises the growing self-belief and against the Maori displayed another commanding performance from scrum-half that has had locals purring and pundits proclaiming him the best number nine in the business.

In tandem with Ireland half-back partner Johnny Sexton, Murray dictated the game from behind a powerful set-piece while his box-kicking from the base of rucks was a textbook display of accuracy, with a willing back three prepared to challenge in the air.

It all added up to the sort of pressure that makes oppositions commit errors and concede penalties, both of which the Maori did repeatedly, exploited by Leigh Halfpenny’s faultless place-kicking from seven attempts and two second-half tries borne of territory and forward power, a penalty try, and a Maro Itoje pick and dive for the line from short range while scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow was in the sin bin.

It could have been a European night at Thomond Park and Murray, with a smile, said it was all “a bit familiar.”

“I think we converted pressure into points, which was really pleasing. I keep going back to the conditions but it’s winter down here, and it is going to be difficult, so you adapt to the conditions and you play what you think your strengths are. We did that effectively and the kicking part is one part of it. The maul and the scrum put us in positions to kick penalties to touch, and gain territory, and it was a battle for that.”

The Lions have been playing the Maori since 1930 and lost for the first time 12 years ago in Hamilton. Revenge was sweet at the weekend and it turned into a record win that was as needed after a tough week on tour following defeat to the Highlanders on Tuesday as it was enjoyable.

“Yeah, especially when we got a few scores ahead and you could see it in the lads’ body language, that it was really enjoyable,” said Murray.

“Because the pressure was on us. Anytime you lose over here, people tend to get on your back and it was a really good way to respond, and the group is in a good place now.”

With Sexton sharp, Sean O’Brien at his rampaging best, and Tadhg Furlong not only on top of things in the scrum but wonderfully effective in the loose, it was a great night for the Irish Lions, capped by a captain’s performance from Murray’s Munster skipper Peter O’Mahony.

The scrum-half said there had been no deviation from O’Mahony’s captaincy of his province. “The usual, sure I’m used to him talking the whole time! I thought it was really important that he didn’t change. That will stand to him. Suddenly you’re named as Lions captain, and maybe that might put a bit more pressure on him, but he was his usual self and played really well.

“People respect him around the place. He knows he’s a chance of being involved and like every other player he’s keeping his head down and working, and trying to get the nod.”

MAORI ALL BLACKS: J Lowe; N Milner-Skudder, M Proctor (R Thompson, 53), C Ngatai, R Ioane; D McKenzie (I West, 70), T Kerr-Barlow (B Hall, 74); K Hames (H Elliot, 70), A Dixon – captain (C Eves, 61), B May (M Renata, 74); J Wheeler (L Price, 70), T Franklin; A Ioane, E Dixon (K Pryor, 70), L Messam.

Yellow card: Kerr-Barlow 47-57 mins

BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: L Halfpenny; A Watson, J Davies, B Te’o, G North (E Daly, 63); J Sexton (D Biggar, 67), C Murray (G Laidlaw, 67); M Vunipola (J McGrath, 59), J George (K Owens, 65), T Furlong (K Sinckler, 65); M Itoje, G Kruis (I Henderson, 59); P O’Mahony – captain (S Warburton, 63), S O’Brien, T Faletau.

Referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa)

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