Leigh Halfpenny booted the British and Irish Lions to a convincing 32-10 win over the Maori All Blacks on Saturday to regain precious momentum ahead of next week’s first Test against New Zealand.
After turning 12-10 ahead, a penalty try soon after half-time and try from lock Maro Itoje — when the Maori had a man in the sin-bin — gave the Lions complete control at a wet Rotorua. Halfpenny kicked six penalties and a conversion.
“It’s important for our momentum, our confidence,” said Lions captain Peter O’Mahony.
“You don’t want to be going into a game against the All Blacks with losses under our belt. This win goes a long way to building what we want to build.”
The Lions’ confidence-boosting win, after Tuesday’s loss to the Otago Highlanders and a week before they face the All Blacks, underscored how the first Test in Auckland will be a battle of contrasting styles.
While the All Blacks ran from all angles in their 12-try, 78-0 win over Samoa on Friday, the clinical Lions stuck to their formula of mixing a kick-and-chase game from Conor Murray with strong, driving, forward play.
They had the better of the Maori in the air and at the breakdown, and they dominated the scrums in the second half.
Such was their overwhelming control, boosted by the scavenging of Sean O’Brien, that they enjoyed more than 70 percent of possession.
But despite an abundance of ball and territory they struggled to beat a tenacious Maori defence and get across the line.
– Towering Itoje –
The Lions did, however, successfully shut down the Maori backs and young All Blacks Nehe Milner-Skudder, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie — all considered exceptional ball-runners — had few opportunities.
The one time Milner-Skudder featured it produced the game’s opening try, when he slipped through a gap and kicked ahead.
George North failed to gather the ball, allowing Liam Messam to charge through and touch down on 12 minutes.
It was not until the Maori were down to 14 men, with scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow yellow-carded for a no-arms tackle on Halfpenny, that the Lions benefited with their two tries.
The first was a seven-point penalty try when the Maori forwards, already on a warning from referee Jaco Peyper, gave way in a five-metre scrum.
The second try went to Saracens lock Itoje, who barged over after another Maori scrum disintegrated.
While the pre-match focus was on the Lions’ loose trio of Taulupe Faletau, O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, it was Itoje who was the towering force among the forwards.
By the time Kerr-Barlow returned to the fray, the fight had gone out of his forward pack and the Lions forwards were able to rumble forward with confidence.
When the Maori had a full complement of 15 on the field, the Lions camped deep in enemy territory but they could not score a try.
Halfpenny landed four penalties in the first half with McKenzie converting Messam’s try and kicking a penalty for the Maori.
In addition to the two tries in the second half for the Lions, Halfpenny added a further two penalties and a conversion.