The Blues beat the British and Irish Lions 22-16 in wet conditions at Eden Park in Auckland, outscoring the tourists three tries to one, putting the nascent tour in turmoil.
A side consisting of Test match veterans should not be losing to the sixth placed team in Australasian Super Rugby standings – and fifth-best New Zealand franchise, in conditions that suit the visitors.
A dismal 7-13 win over the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, whose name says it all; a side consisting of players selected a week prior to the tour opener, also kept the Lions to one try.
Ihaia West scored a late try to give his team a historic victory and in doing so, became the first Super Rugby franchise to beat the Lions, who add 2017 to 1983 and 1993 to the Auckland list of losses.
This could – and should have been – a bigger beating, but the home team were not at their best and could not finish off a team brimful of Test match internationals.
Leigh Halfpenny kicked two second-half penalties to give his team a slender lead, late in the game.
But, a sensational try with four minutes to play from substitute the first-five eight, saw the Blues claim victory from the jaws of defeat, sending the Lions away to lick their wounds – and heal hurt pride.
This was another ordinary display by Warren Gatland’s tourists, who trailed 12-10 at the break after Sonny Bill scored a walk-off try from Stephen Perofeta’s rebounded penalty.
Sonny Bill Williams, Steven Luatua and Rieko Ioane starred for the Kiwis, who out-thought and outplayed their illustrious opponents, and could have had double the amount of tries, but for some poor handling and last-ditch tackling.
This is New Zealand’s ‘weakest’ Super Rugby franchise, which is an indictment on the ‘Warrenball’ tactics. This will be a long tour.
Rieko Ioane opened the scoring in the fifth minute, setting the tone for what would turn out to be a tough day at the office for the team in red.
The flyer burnt Jack Nowell on the outside after taking a long skip pass from Stephen Perofeta, who was making his first start for the Blues. Charlie Faumuina got the move going before the backs finished off the move.
The game was played in wet conditions, which made handling of the ball and running rugby tough for the players.
Jared Payne thought he had equalised soon after, but the replay showed that his foot was in touch, after a last-ditch tackle from Perofeta.
However, the Lions did eventually cross the whitewash thanks to CJ Stander. Some sustained pressure brought about another line-out on the Blues’ five metres line.
The Lions set up a driving maul and the Blues crumbled, and the South African crashed over from close range. Halfpenny added the extras to give his team a 5-7 lead.
The tourists were starting to find their rhythm. Their lineout and scrum set pieces, as well as their work at the breakdown, had their hosts on the backfoot.
Courtney Lawes and Maro Itoje were immense. The boiler-room duo carried the ball with purpose as they helped their team take control of the fixture. Stander and James Haskell caused problems for the Blues at the ruck.
Ofa Tu’ungafasi was penalised for collapsing and Halfpenny extended the lead to five. The Lions, for all their possession and territory, could conjure up another try.
Rieko Ioane was called back after he thought he had scored before half-time, but it was cancelled out for offsides. The Lions had been warned.
With seconds remaining in the first-half, the Blues were awarded a penalty. Perofeta opted for poles, but his kick rebounded off the upright.
What the Lions defenders and post-watchers were doing, was anyone’s guess. The ball bounced and a melee ensued as both teams fought for the ball.
The ball was knocked into the in-goal area and Sonny Bill dived on it, beating a defender and claimed the try.
TMO Marius Jonker conferred with referee Pascal Gauzere, and it was awarded to the All Black after it was adjudged to have been knocked backwards by a Lions’ player.
Perofeta converted from in front and the momentum had swung to Tana Umaga’s team, who took a two-point lead into the shed.
Gatland’s team were behind, even though they enjoyed 65 percent possession and 53 percent territory; their set piece was dominant, but in attack, were dire.
The rain was getting heavy, so points would be at a premium. The Blues went close though Rieko Ioane, who on another day, might have had a hat-trick, but his foot was in touch.
Soon after, the wing made another break, offloaded to Luatua – who was everywhere – only to see Matt Duffie fluff his lines with the try-line beckoning.
On 53 minutes, West, on at first-five eight for Perofeta, kicked his team to 15-10 lead moments after coming on the field.
Liam Williams, channelling his inner Ronan O’Gara circa 2009 Loftus Versfeld, was sent to the sin-bin for repeatedly taking a player out in the air.
The Lions survived Williams’ yellow card, the Blues unable to take advantage of the extra man. The game had swung back in favour of the tourists.
Halfpenny reduced the deficit one-point with a 65th-minute penalty. 15-16 lead with eight minutes to play, but it was not enough as West finished them off after some Sonny Bill Williams’ magic
With their tails up and back to a full quota of 15 players, the visitors struck another blow.
The Welshman’s second penalty gave his side a 15-16 lead with eight minutes to play.
The Lions were in control and looking to run the clock down. but it was not enough as West finished them off after some Sonny Bill Williams’ magic
Enter Luatua, Sonny Bill and West. The No 8 made a break in midfield and offloaded a sublime pass, in the tackle, to Sonny Bill.
Williams’ pace took him away from the defenders as he charged forward. He looked for support and found it in West, who collected the centre’s pass, cut in field and sped away from all and sundry.
The fly-half converted his try, extending the Kiwi’s lead to six points with less than three minutes to play.
As in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, there would be more than one denouement.
The Lions roared into the blues’ 22, battering the home team’s defences with pick-and-drives. Somehow, the referee saw fit to award the Blues a penalty and a reprieve.
West’s clearance was poor, gaining few yards as the Lions camped inside their 22. Luatua won the lineout, but Mr Gauzere pinged the Blues.
The clock ticked, Jonny Sexton kicked to the corner. One last chance for the tourists to salvage the win. However, they blew it, throwing over the back of the lineout. With that, the Blues cleared and the ref ended the match.
With that, the Blues cleared and the ref ended the match, giving the Auckland side a famous victory over their vaunted opponents.
Final Score: Blues 22 (12) British and Irish Lions 16 (10)
Tries – R. Ioane, Williams, West
Pen – West
Con – Perofeta, West
British and Irish Lions
Tries – Stander
Pen – Halfpenny (3)
Con – Halfpenny
Cards – Wiliams (Yellow, 57th minute)
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
Assistant 1: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant 2: Angus Gardner (Australia)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Ihaia West, 23 TJ Faiane
British and Irish Lions
15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Ken Owens (captain), 1 Jack McGrath.
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O’Mahon, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Jonathan Sexton, 23 Liam Williams.