Lions lose to Blues in Auckland

Lions lose to Blues in Auckland

One moment of Sonny Bill Williams magic was all it took for Auckland Blues to sink the British and Irish Lions 22-16 at Eden Park.

All Blacks talisman Williams' tight line and offload let the onrushing Ihaia West race home for the late try that dispatched Warren Gatland's battling tourists.

The Lions botched the perfect chance to set their tour up and running by throwing away a potentially priceless victory against their first Super Rugby opposition.

Dan Biggar will be an immediate injury doubt after failing to return from a head injury assessment, while Jared Payne limped out in clear pain with a potential foot problem.

Rhys Webb enjoyed a fine game but departed late on with an issue the Lions will hope is nothing more than cramp.

Liam Williams was handed a deserved yellow card for two botched aerial challenges on Matt Duffie, but the Lions survived that scare - only to slip off in the final stages after claiming a 16-15 lead.

Robbie Henshaw
Robbie Henshaw

Rieko Ioane and Sonny Bill Williams claimed the Blues' other tries, while CJ Stander snaffled the lone score for the visitors.

Leigh Halfpenny's 11 points with the boot kept the tourists in touch, but to no avail.

Whatever the improvements from the tour-opening win over the Provincial Barbarians, the cold facts are that the Lions lost a match they ought to have won.

A much-improved Lions started sharply on the front foot, only to leak two poor tries before half-time.

Rieko Ioane zipped into the left corner after Haskell misread the play, raced out and caused a dogleg that left Nowell floundering.

Jared Payne then ought to have scored in the left corner after the Lions manoeuvred their hosts into position to strike.

The former Blues man slid for the corner on the left wing, only for him to stray into touch just ahead of his grounding.

The Lions punted two penalties to the corner and were rewarded for the ambition, with Stander powering home and Halfpenny converting.

A Halfpenny penalty had the Lions 10-5 to the good in the second quarter, with the tourists dominating the scrum.

Rieko Ioane thought he had scored a second when racing clear, only for Ofa Tuungafasi to be pulled up by the TMO for a blatant offside that referee Pascal Gauzere somehow missed.

Tuungafasi wiped out Biggar, and the Wales fly-half was immediately removed for a head injury assessment.

Itoje conceded a cheap penalty for closing the lineout gap, and that let the Blues build a platform.

Perofeta struck the post with a penalty, and the rebound caused mayhem.

TJ Faiane and Nowell fought for the ball in the air, before Williams slid through to touch down.

After much deliberation the officials decided Nowell knocked backwards from the aerial challenge - ruling out a knock-on from Faiane.

That meant Williams' try stood, and Perofeta's conversion handed the Blues a 12-10 half-time lead.

Nowell started the second-half by denying Rieko Ioane, dragging the wing's foot into touch as he attempted a finish.

Payne hobbled off with a possible foot injury, then Nowell rushed out and missed a tackle, before knocking on cheaply.

Replacement fly-half Ihaia West slotted a penalty to stretch the Blues' lead to 15-10, and the Lions' hard-forced penalty from a lineout maul was reversed when Liam Williams took out Matt Duffie in the air.

Williams took out Duffie again just moments later, in another miserable misread, and paid the price for the double offence with a justified yellow card.

Finally the Lions built some phase play - and forced quick dividend with Halfpenny slotting his second penalty of the night when Augustine Pulu was pinged for not rolling away.

The Lions admirably negotiated their 10 minutes with 14 men, with Williams returning without the tourists conceding.

Rory Best replaced Ken Owens and took the captaincy, and immediately the Lions bulldozed the Blues scrum for a penalty.

Halfpenny posted the 40-metre goal to edge the Lions into a 16-15 lead.

But just when the Lions thought they could wrestle control, up popped Sonny Bill Williams with a devastating assist.

Luatua's offload set blockbusting centre Williams through the gap, and West's majestic line bamboozled the splintered Lions defence.

Liam Williams raced out to make the hit on Sonny Bill, only for the totemic midfielder to send West careering home.

The Lions forced a late penalty and punted to the corner, but lost the lineout in shambolic fashion - gifting the game to their hosts.

Much improved from the woeful tour-opening 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians - but this defeat remains a massive missed opportunity for Gatland's Lions.

60-Second Report

Key moment: In an enthralling game of ebb and flow with several swings in momentum, the Lions had a chance to steal victory at the death when they won a ruck penalty in the Blues corner.

Trailing 22-16, Johnny Sexton kicked to the corner and with the time clicking past 80 minutes, Rory Best had a lineout to get the Lions drive rolling.

Yet the ball flew out the back of the line and the Blues had possession once more, kicking it out to end the game and seal a famous victory.

Talking point: Warren Gatland better hope his project for the Lions to bring chaos to the All Blacks is nearing completion because it was absent at Eden Park.

The only Lions try came from a maul and instead of playing heads-up rugby, it was the Blues who showed them how it's done.

The Auckland side wreaked havoc with six minutes to go to score a magnificent try featuring sublime offloads from Steven Luatua and Sonny Bill Williams that unleashed Ihaia West from the Lions' 10-metre line, his pace and footwork leaving Sexton and Halfpenny for dust as he scored under the posts.

A wonderful, searing piece of rugby.

Key man: Sonny Bill Williams had a majestic game at inside centre for the Blues to stake his claim for All Blacks selection while hooker and captain James Parsons led from the front even making a blistering break upfield as the Blues continually got on the front foot.

Ref watch: French official Pascal Gauzere and TMO Marius Jonker awarded the Blues a questionable try on the stroke of half-time after TJ Faiane and Lions wing Jack Nowell both appeared to make contact with the ball after a penalty ricocheted off an upright.

Jonker ruled it was knocked back by Nowell rather than knocked on and gave Sonny Bill Williams the try which sent the Blues into a 12-10 half-time lead.

Then Gauzere yellow carded Lions sub Liam Williams after two acts of dangerous play in the air contesting high balls he and Jonker felt he had no realistic chance of challenging.

Penalties conceded: Blues 11 Lions 13

Injuries: Lions fly-half Dan Biggar was removed from the field for a Head Injury Assessment on 35 minutes after a tackle from an offside player while centre Jared Payne worrying came off with what looked a recurrence of the calf injury that had made this game his first since April 7.

Scrum-half Rhys Webb also appeared to limp out late in the second half.

Next up: The Lions leave Auckland with a first defeat of the tour and head to the South Island and Christchurch for this Saturday's third game against Super Rugby kingpins the Crusaders.

The overall league leaders maintained their 100 per cent record for 2017 with a 14th straight victory, showcasing their resolve with an overtime, long-distance drop goal from Mitch Hunt to seal a dramatic 25-22 home victory over Southern Classic rivals the Highlanders.

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