19 Jun 2017

Lions victory: lesson in wet weather rugby

7:36 am on 19 June 2017

The Lions needed a good dress rehearsal going into the first test, and by crikey, against the Māori All Blacks on a filthy night in Rotorua, did they get it. A lesson in wet weather rugby, writes Michael Reid.

Ben Te'o makes a break for the Lions.

Ben Te'o makes a break for the Lions. Photo: Photosport

Perhaps the Lions have got a sniff of a chance.

After the ups and down, the all-to-familiar "oh, here we go again", the overwhelming sentiment across the newspaper back pages this weekend after the 32-10 win, is maybe, just maybe, we're coming good.

The Lions hit the NZ Māori with a heavy dose of northern hemisphere rugby, trumpeted the BBC online.

Warren Gatland's side came into this game with two wins from four games, following Wednesday's last-ditch 23-22 defeat by the Highlanders, but in the Bay of Plenty, they played the conditions perfectly.

The timing was damn nigh perfect, too.

Indeed, the Telegraph had it as a watershed moment, "not just for individuals but for the morale of the tour seven days from the first test".

"The Lions had been buffeted by off-field issues, dented too by the defeats that had been racking up. The pack was outstanding, with Maro Itoje putting in a colossal shift, so too Taulupe Faletau. The scrum was in its element and half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton made best use.

"This was just the tonic, a timely boost. They may have been doubted from the outside but the soul of the side, without which nothing is possible, looks in good order."

Conor Murray takes a kick.

Conor Murray takes a kick. Photo: PhotoSport

Upping the ante was the Observer. "New Zealand remain the most formidable force in world rugby," said its chap in the Shaky Isles, "but the Lions pack is displaying sufficient power and purpose to suggest the Eden Park outcome is not a total certainty."

For the Irish Times, the extent of the win takes the heat off Gatland for adhering to his long-stated intention to call up short-term cover in the week of the first test for Tuesday's game against the Chiefs. And he had been getting it in the neck, from Eddie Jones et al, the WalesOnline columnist for one was "angry with the Lions head coach over his decision to call up players on geographical grounds rather than merit".

And now, like rats up a drainpipe, the press are, to a man, putting up their hands to say who should be in, who should be out of the test lineup.

The Observer had the tourists collectively staking a claim for selection in Auckland.

"Maro Itoje, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien, in particular, could have done little more to persuade Warren Gatland they deserve test starting places ahead of Alun Wyn Jones, CJ Stander and Sam Warburton."

With Owen Farrell (tear to his quadriceps) out of this game and in doubt for the first Test, attention focused even more sharply on the mojo-seeking Johnny Sexton, with the Daily Mail giving him a thumbs-up 8 out of 10. So, yes, he had found it after a dodgy start Down Under. As the Telegraph pointed out, the injury bulletins on Farrell will make selection intriguing.

The general consensus has been the Lions back three have not acquitted themselves well on this trip, but Leigh Halfpenny, his metronomic self with the boot, at last "corrected his part of the equation".

If there was a negative from British and Irish hounds it was the recurring failure to convert those breaks and set-piece supremacy into more tries. A sense that 'we've bossed games but not put them out of sight'.

That said, the locals, might finally have to concede they have a game on their hands.

"New Zealanders do not take much notice of the feats of opponents but this was different, this was the revered Māori All Blacks that had not just been defeated but dominated."

And in Blighty, when Saturday comes, they will be praying for more rain.

Michael Reid is an Australian journalist who has called Old Blighty home for too long. A late convert to the oval ball game, he has worked at the past three Rugby World Cups and considers himself a neutral - of sorts.

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