Ihaia West’s superb try with six minutes to go helped the Blues defeat the British and Irish Lions 22-16 at Eden Park on Wednesday.
Rieko Ioane’s early try gave the Blues an ideal start, with the Lions responding thanks to their maul and a try from CJ Stander to take the lead.
Rob Howley spoke about the Lions bringing ‘Rugby chaos’ to the media this week, except it was the Blues who delivered that with their try before the interval, Stephen Perofeta’s penalty bouncing back off the post before Sonny Bill Williams did brilliantly well to touch down in the race for the ball, meaning the Blues led 12-10 at half-time.
Ihaia West and Leigh Halfpenny traded penalties before with their scrum on top, the Lions took a 16-15 lead into the final ten minutes.
West then ripped up the script, his magic solo try sending the crowd of over 40,000 onto their feet after great build-up work from Steven Luatua and Williams. From 22-16 with less than five minutes to go, the Lions couldn’t find a response.
The Blues might be the weakest of the New Zealand sides but they have the sixth-best record in Super Rugby this year, and how it showed here as they pushed the Lions all the way. Rieko Ioane and Sonny Bill Williams, watched by Steve Hansen, both firmly put their hands up to start in the Test series.
The Lions lineout and especially their scrum performed well, and they were far more cohesive than on Saturday against the Provincial Barbarians.
Ill-discipline however was a major problem, with Liam Williams sin-binned only minutes after coming on in the second half. They lacked the same gain-line threats as the Blues and it showed late on searching for the win.
Warren Gatland will have hoped for a settled start and the Lions delivered that initially, building steady phases. That promise was halted twice however by turnovers from the energetic Williams.
Profiting from good field position, the Blues stretched the Lions one way with a cross-field kick towards Matt Duffie, becoming come back to the other side, with the Lions defenders sucked in on the blitz leaving too much space for Rieko Ioane.
The All Blacks winger, who has to start in the Test series on current form, left Jack Nowell chasing thin air as he went into the corner for a score.
The Lions response was almost instant, Jared Payne’s foot in touch as he dove for the corner costing him a try against his old side, with the young Blues fly-half Perofeta capping off a bright start with the key tackle.
Confidence from the Lions saw captain Ken Owens turn down a shot at goal to go to the corner, to the approval of the home crowd, with successive penalties leading two consecutive mauls and a try eventually for Stander.
Halfpenny duly converted and then extended the lead after the Lions pack won a scrum penalty, making it 10-5, as the Lions continued to make progress with their short-range drives from the forwards.
Soft penalties however undermind the Lions efforts, twice at the lineout, and their scrum was dominant. Against the odds though it looked as though Rieko Ioane had doubled his tally after Biggar’s loose pass.
The tackler, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, was rightly penalised for offside, with the TMO ruling out the score. And as the heavens opened before the break it was the Lions in the lead.
Then Perofeta somehow missed a straightforward penalty by clattering it off the post – unless it was an immaculate design – but in the ensuing scramble it looked as though Williams had grounded the ball.
The TMO agreed, the ball having been knocked back by Nowell with Williams’ superb dive for the ball leading to a bizarre try. With the conversion, the Blues led 12-10 at half-time, somewhat underservingly.
A bright start to the second half followed for the home side, Justin Tipuric penalised for not rolling away and setting the Blues up deep in the Lions 22.
Wide the ball went from right to left, heading Ioane’s way, with only a smart cover tackle from Nowell preventing the young All Black from getting a double after the TMO confirmed his right foot was in touch.
Nowell continued to be exposed in the Lions blitz defensive scheme on a night to forget for the Exeter Chief, a Maro Itoje penalty for offside allowing West coming off the bench to cap off the Blues’ period of dominance with three more points, making it 15-10.
After looking composed in the first half the Lions could not get any fluency, barely spending any time in Blues territory due to costly penalties.
Two of those in a row for Liam Williams on Duffie, tackling him in the air, saw the Wales back sin-binned and the Lions pinned back, with the Blues beginning to dream of a huge win despite there being 20 mnutes to go.
Still down to 14 men the Lions chipped away at the score with three more points from Halfpenny in the 64th minute, making it 15-13, and the Wales full-back soon stepped up again with the Lions scrum eeking out yet another penalty to put the Lions ahead.
Then came the match-winning moment, Luatua’s well-time offload releasing Sonny Bill Williams into the clear, before his own offload found a flying West, rounding Halfpenny for an outstanding try.
Doing their best to respond the Lions were thwarted at the breakdown by Akira Ioane as the Blues successfully ran down the clock for a famous win, the Lions squandering a late five-metre lineout with the game on the line.
Tries: R Ioane, Williams, West
Cons: Perofeta, West
For British and Lions:
Pens: Halfpenny 3
Yellow Card: Williams