Though Conor Murray left Christchurch yesterday with a dislocated finger, there was also the sense the Lions’ momentum has been restored with a significant victory.
Crusaders 3 Lions 12
Graham Henry looked at the scrum-half and saw the world’s best number nine coming nicely to the boil.
Saturday night at the AMI Stadium had looked as if it might be the moment the 2017 tour to New Zealand hit the rocks, a ragged Lions party coming off two disjointed performances and a defeat to the Blues three nights earlier heading into the home of Super Rugby’s most proficient, successful and creative franchise.
With 14 wins and no losses from a super campaign which has seen them average 37 points a game, backed up by an all-All Blacks front five in their pack, it gave the Crusaders an aura the Lions had looked incapable of diminishing based on their first two outings.
Yet, on a dewy night in Christchurch and with their strongest starting XV of the tour so far, Warren Gatland’s team played with the intensity and desperation to succeed that instead found the home side unable to find a solution.
Kept tryless for the first time this season, the free-wheeling Crusaders were properly shackled by the visiting side. The Lions’ hustle and harry looked like a culture shock to Super Rugby’s league leaders, who failed to deal with the tourists’ impressive linespeed, were guilty of indiscipline at the breakdown and unforced errors in open play.
It resulted in opportunities for the scrum to dominate, Tadhg Furlong winning his battle with Joe Moody a few days after Jack McGrath had done the same to his potential Test opposite number Charlie Faumuina.
And the penalties accrued gave Owen Farrell further scope to prove he is the goal-kicking machine at fly-half the All Blacks lack, for all Beauden Barrett’s playmaking strengths.
Farrell kicked four from five penalties and even disputed his second-half miss, although referee Mathieu Raynal denied his request for a TMO check that the ball had actually dissected the posts.
The Saracens and England star also dovetailed excellently with Munster and Ireland’s Murray, who was at the forefront of a Lions rally which produced a victory that has lifted everyone on the tour and finally piqued some positivity among the hosts.
Murray’s performance was one of control, appetite and vision, his box-kicking executed with pinpoint accuracy to keep the Crusaders back three honest and force mistakes on which his hungry team-mates were all too eager to pounce and punish.
And after a two-month injury lay-off following the stinger injury in his left shoulder suffered against Wales on March 10 it was a signal Murray is now hitting his straps at the perfect time from a Lions point of view. Not even the dislocated finger suffered tap tackling a fast-breaking Jack Goodhue could derail the scrum-half.
It was the sort of display that had New Zealand’s 2011 World Cup-winning Graham Henry declaring yesterday Murray, 27, was in a class of his own.
Talking on Radio New Zealand about the Lions performance against the Crusaders, Henry said: “Conor Murray was outstanding. He’s a very composed player, he knows the game and never gets rattled. He’s probably the best number nine in the world.”
For Murray, the positives were about the squad rather than the individual, albeit with the caveat there is much more to come from a group itself kept tryless on Saturday, despite creating several scoring opportunities.
“It was important to get back to winning ways. We are working our way in terms of gelling as a squad and figuring things out on the pitch in terms of live game scenarios. There were mistakes, but good stuff as well in terms of opportunities created, we need to finish a few now. The excitement is there that we can bust teams. We’ve improved on the last game. It’s positive.”
Also positive, Murray said, was the low penalty count on Saturday night, just seven conceded against the Crusaders.
“The big thing is discipline from the first two games. I think it was 29 penalties (conceded) in two games. You can’t win games like that. That was a point we needed to improve on. We played in the right areas and defended really well. Their stats are really impressive – they average 30 or so points – so, to keep them down was impressive.”
For Farrell there was also the proof he can emulate his second receiver’s role with England in a Lions setting, a failed Head Injury Assessment to outside centre Jon Davies after 28 minutes bringing Johnny Sexton onto the field, forcing Ben Te’o into 13 and the starting fly-half one position out as the Ireland man took over at 10 for long periods.
Murray and Farrell look set to continue their blossoming partnership into the Test series after the weekend’s game while a rejuvenated Sexton, benefiting from minutes in each of the three tour games so far, looks like a live contender for the bench if he continues this form.
Te’o is also emerging as a Test starter just two weeks out from the opener with the All Blacks while the Irish cause, in addition to tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong, has been considerably boosted by wonderful performances in the back row from Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien.
Their alliance with No.8 Taulupe Faletau could have the makings of a Test trio, although Sam Warburton’s return from injury will strengthen the tour captain’s hopes of pulling rank over O’Brien for the seven jersey.
I Dagg; S Tamanvivalu, Jack Goodhue, D Havili, G Bridge (Bateman, 66); R Mo’unga (M Hunt, 74), B Hall (M Drummond, 62); J Moody (W Crockett, 51), C Taylor (B Funnell, 51), O Franks (M Alaalatoa, 51); L Romano (Q Strange, 56), S Whitelock -captain; H Bedwell-Curtis (J Brown, 62), M Todd, J Taufua.
S Hogg (A Watson, 20); G North, J Davies (J Sexton, 28), B Te’o, L Williams; O Farrell, C Murray; M Vunipola (J McGrath, 62), J George (K Owens, 66), T Furlong (D Cole, 66); A W Jones - captain, G Kruis (M Itoje, 62); P O’Mahony, S O’Brien (CJ Stander, 56), T Faletau.
Replacement not used:
Mathieu Raynal (France).
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