24 June 2017 2:07pm By Charlie Talbot-Smith
A second-half double from Rieko Ioane proved the Lions undoing as the All Blacks claimed a hard-fought first Test victory in an enthralling clash at Eden Park.
The Lions will head to Wellington with plenty of optimism however, not least after Sean O’Brien’s fantastic first-half try from a team move that will live long in the memory of all who saw it and Rhys Webb’s late snipe from close range.
Codie Taylor crossed out wide in the first half after the hosts had weathered an initial Lions storm, and with Beauden Barrett flawless from the kicking tee the tourists were on the back foot.
But Liam Williams led a dramatic breakout from his own 22 that culminated in O’Brien going over for a score, and with an Owen Farrell penalty the Lions were in the battle at the break, trailing 13-8.
After the interval the Lions came out firing, with the impressive Jonathan Davies testing the All Black defence on a wet night in Auckland but the home side held firm before Ioane – on his first Test start – turned on the style.
First the winger dotted down in the left corner after the All Blacks put the ball through the hands and with ten minutes left he broke free from halfway after gathering a fumbled TJ Perenara box-kick.
The Lions kept coming until the final whistle, replacement Webb darting over from close range but it is the All Blacks who will head to Wellington 1-0 up in the three-Test series.
The hosts may not have lost a Test at Eden Park since 1994 but the Lions were undaunted and were on the attack right from the off.
After Aaron Smith conceded a penalty the Lions built the phases before working Davies in the clear down the left, from the next phase Farrell then appeared to have put Elliot Daly over in corner. But the TMO showed the winger was in touch and the All Blacks were off the hook.
Although both Ben Smith and Israel Dagg were having initial problems with Murray’s expert box-kicking, the hosts had weathered the initial storm and – after Jerome Kaino’s break earned a penalty – Barrett slotted over the first points of the series in the 13th minute.
The first quarter was being played at a frenetic pace and with the hosts now dominating possession and territory Taulupe Faletau and Jamie George were leading a big defensive shift from the Lions.
But after Brodie Retallick’s turnover, the All Blacks turned on the style and from a quick tap penalty spread the ball right, Dagg’s pass expertly picked up off his toes by Taylor to go over in the corner.
It was ruthless from the world champions, Barrett’s conversion making it 10-0 with only 20 minutes played.
Sam Cane and O’Brien’s battle at the breakdown was blockbuster all night but the Lions badly needed a score and on the half-hour mark it came, Farrell slotting a penalty after Murray was taken out illegally.
No sooner had they got a foothold than the Lions were up against it again when skipper Read – showing no signs of ring rust after six weeks out with a thumb injury – broke clear and another penalty was slotted by Barrett to take the lead back out to ten points at 13-3.
The All Blacks had the lead but injuries in the backline were threatening to derail them, Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty both withdrawn in quick succession, moving Barrett to full back and Anton Lienert-Brown into midfield and Aaron Cruden to fly half.
And moments later the Lions produced a try for the ages. Williams led the breakout from his own 22, offloaded to Davies and when the centre swapped passes with Daly it was O’Brien on the shoulder to dot down for one of the great Lions tries.
Farrell’s extras were off-target but the Lions were in the game at 13-8 and when the heavens opened at the interval it was the Lions who went in with a spring in their step.
And the tourists’ momentum carried on at the start of the second period, Davies and Anthony Watson both scything through in quick succession to put the Lions deep in the All Blacks 22.
But the hosts’ scramble defence held firm, and as the rain continued to fall the second half was still scoreless – the Lions turning to Maro Itoje and Jack McGrath off the bench with Sam Warburton not far behind.
Ben Te’o was making some thundering hits in defence but in the 55th minute, having soaked up the Lions best punches, the All Blacks showed just why they are the world champions.
First they got the nudge on from a scrum, Read then showed fabulous skill to offload to his scrum half from the deck and the ball went through the hands to put Ioane in the corner for their second try.
Barrett was again flawless with the extras and at 20-8, the Lions had it all to do as the game ticked towards the hour mark.
Another Barrett penalty turned the screw to make it a 15-point lead, before Ioane pulled another rabbit out of the hat, pouncing on a loose ball after Liam Williams had failed to gather Perenara’s box-kick to race clear.
The Lions fought hard in the closing moments, replacement Kyle Sinckler bursting clear down the right and it was Webb – on for Murray – who sent the Sea of Red at Eden Park home with something to cheer.