The British and Irish Lions gained a confidence-boosting win as their power told against the Maori All Blacks in wet conditions in Rotorua.
Leigh Halfpenny – who landed 20 points in all – kicked them into a 15-10 half-time lead, with Liam Messam crossing for the hosts’ try.
The Lions forwards dominated the second half and they earned a penalty try when they took the Maori apart at a scrum.
Maro Itoje crossed four minutes later as the Lions laid down a Test marker.
Warren Gatland’s side came into the game with two wins from four games, following Wednesday’s 23-22 defeat by the Highlanders.
That made this a must-win game and Gatland went with power in a bid to neutralise the dangerous Maori attack.
And the tourists did just that with a combination of smothering defence and precise kicking pinning the Maori back.
A tight first half saw Messam pounce to score an opportunist try after George North had fumbled Nehe Milner-Skudder’s grubber kick.
But that was a rare foray into the 22 for the Maori and the hosts barely got out of their own half after the break as the visitors’ power up front told.
They scored in the 10 minutes the Maori were without Tawera Kerr-Barlow after the scrum-half was yellow carded for a dangerous tackle on Halfpenny.
Many of the Lions team that started the game in Rotorua played themselves into contention to start the first Test against the All Blacks on Saturday, 24 June.
It was no surprise that the Lions’ two tries came from the pack.
They were imperious throughout the match, winning all of their scrums and line-outs.
The scrum brought the first try on 51 minutes as the Maori forwards, defending their 5m line, were forced to turn it illegally by the power of the Lions, with referee Jaco Peyper given no choice but to give the score.
Minutes later and it was another scrum, another score. This time Taulupe Faletau drove from the base but was held up just short of the line and lock Itoje, who had been outstanding all game, picked up and dived over from close range.
With his forwards excelling in the wet conditions, albeit against a disappointing Maori side, Gatland might be praying for rain in Auckland in a week’s time.
Peter O’Mahony, who started as captain, was excellent in the back row alongside Faletau and Sean O’Brien and tour captain Sam Warburton will not be an automatic starter in Auckland.
With Owen Farrell an injury doubt for the first Test, England centre Ben Te’o produced the perfect audition to nail down the number 12 jersey.
The Worcester back was the visitors’ most dangerous attacking threat, running for 70m in total and being able to break the gainline against a big, physical side.
His centre partner Jonathan Davies was another who excelled in the tricky conditions and both could start in midfield against the All Blacks.
Ireland half-backs Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton looked nailed on for the nine and 10 jerseys, while Halfpenny, with his metronomic kicking, will be hard to dislodge at 15.
While George Kruis looked one-dimensional in attack, his leadership of the line-out will be invaluable to Gatland, and Itoje’s all-action game means he will surely start at lock.
Anthony Watson, despite being starved of possession, did enough to suggest he could start against the All Blacks, but doubts remain over North’s form on the opposite wing.
Lions boss Warren Gatland: “It was pretty good. If you look at territory and possession we dominated things. A couple of stupid penalties in the first half but we managed the game well and squeezed the life out of them.
“We’ve been guilty of putting ourselves under pressure but we got some going forward – even the try they scored was a lucky, speculative kick through.
“We’re benefiting from the experience of playing the quality of sides we are.”
The Saturday team is unbeaten on tour and today’s performance will have given them a huge shot of belief a week before the first Test. The fundamentals and foundations of the gameplan for the Lions were there for everyone to see, namely All Blacks boss Steve Hansen, who was an interested spectator in the stands.
Physicality, set-piece, line speed, work-rate and a top-notch kicking game are the hallmarks of a strong Gatland team, and these Lions are not going to deviate from what has brought him plenty of success before.
In saying all that, as impressive as tonight’s victory was, you just know they’ll have to be 10 or 20% better next weekend at least in order to win. Roll on next Saturday.
Maori All Blacks: J Lowe; N Milner-Skudder, M Proctor, C Ngatai, R Ioane; D McKenzie, T Kerr-Barlow; K Hames, A Dixon (capt), B May, J Wheeler, T Franklin, A Ioane, E Dixon, L Messam.
Lions: L Halfpenny (Wales); A Watson (England), J Davies (Wales), B Te’o (England), G North (Wales); Sexton, C Murray (both Ireland); M Vunipola, J George (both England), T Furlong (Ireland), M Itoje, G Kruis (both England), P O’Mahony (capt), S O’Brien (both Ireland), T Faletau (Wales).
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