The British & Irish Lions will go into Saturday’s first Test against New Zealand with spirits high after a convincing victory over the Chiefs in Hamilton. Winger Jack Nowell scored a brace of well-taken tries and Jared Payne also scored against his former team as the Lions cruised to their first midweek win of the tour.
It was a satisfying result for head coach Warren Gatland on several fronts. As a proud son of Waikato, who played in the 1993 side who beat the Lions, there was a personal point to prove and, particularly in the second-half, his players played well enough to maintain the momentum generated by last Saturday’s significant win over the Maori.
For the third game in succession the Lions proved a tough nut to crack defensively and, in addition to the hungry Nowell, a clutch of other players advanced their chances of featuring on the Test bench. Elliot Daly’s withdrawal in the third quarter – even though he returned late on – suggested he remains a candidate to face the All Blacks while Courtney Lawes and CJ Stander both gave impressively forceful displays up front.
There are also a growing number of Lions fans on tour and, if the game was not a classic, the outcome will further encourage the touring hordes. Gatland admitted before the game that “if you cut me open I would probably bleed red, yellow and black” but his loyalty to his Waikato roots did not extend to hoping the hosts would beat the touring team. Nor did it prevent the Lions starting like a side determined to make a point or two following previous midweek defeats to the Blues and the Highlanders.
Lawes, Daly and Nowell were all prominent from the outset, although the limelight was briefly stolen by Allan Dell, one of the “geographical six” replacements added to the tour for the final two provincial games. Having come on to replace the sin-binned Joe Marler, who was yellow carded for a no arms tackle on Nepo Laulala, Dell’s first scrum in a Lions’ jersey was a triumph with the Chiefs shoved emphatically off the ball. When Marler came back on, some booing was audible around the stadium.
The Chiefs, lacking several of their first-choice players, showed the odd flicker in attack but mostly it was a case of the Lions enjoying plenty of possession but conceding too many penalties for comfort. It needed a flash of something different to pierce the home defence and Nowell, standing guard at the side of a close-range ruck, finally provided it after 26 minutes with a smart dive over a pile of bodies to score the opening try.
Gatland will also have been quietly delighted by the two penalties awarded against the Chiefs’ second five-eighth Jonny Fa’auli for blocking Lions runners, precisely the offence the head coach had flagged up this week. Stephen Donald, the Chiefs’ captain and scorer of the crucial penalty in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, complained repeatedly to the French referee Jerome Garces that Lions players were not releasing the ball quickly enough on the floor without much success. The differences of interpretation between hemispheres have shown little sign of diminishing on this tour, increasingly a clash of rugby styles with barely any middle ground.
The Lions will not care how they are perceived as long as they keep winning After forcing their second penalty try of the tour, they will also point to the flowing length of the field move that culminated in Nowell’s second try after 58 minutes. As they get to know each a little better, the 2017 Lions are growing ever harder to beat.
Chiefs – Pens: Donald 2.
British & Irish Lions – Tries: Nowell 2, Penalty try, Payne.
Cons: Biggar 3. Pens: Biggar 2.
Referee: J Garces (France). Att: 29,974.