The Crusaders plunged the Lions further into despair with a 46-19 victory in Christchurch.
Yes there were improvements for Jozi’s jokers, particularly in that they showed a greater appreciation for building an attacking platform through patient phase play which featured robust ball carries and powerful rucking. However, those improvements have to be viewed in context. The Saders fielded a number of new combinations and rested Dan Carter, and still managed an emphatic victory.
The Lions’ direct approach troubled the Saders early on, and for 60 minutes it looked as if the Lions could defy pre-match predictions and burgle the points. However, their challenge waned as they were systematically starved of possession and asked to defend through multiple phases thereafter.
For all their improvement on attack, fundamental errors in defence continue to undermine their challenge. Burton Francis took the Lions into a 6-0 lead, but they surrendered tamely – Sean Maitland drifting past his marker and blitzing the cover defence to score.
They responded excellently though, taking a quick restart after a Colin Slade penalty. This caught the Saders cold and forced them to rush their clearance. The Lions drove into the Saders’ red zone from the subsequent lineout and Hannes Franklin exploited poor pillar defence when he shot out of a ruck and sprinted for the line. Francis converted and for 15 minutes thereafter they looked a competent unit.
However, their inability to sustain their defensive effort cost them dearly when Saders hooker Ti’i Paulo rampaged down the wing before feeding Jonathan Poff, who negotiated a number of lame tackles en route to the tryline. Slade missed the conversion but traded penalties with Francis, the Saders finishing the half 22-16 ahead.
The Lions were dealt a decisive blow when Francis was injured and replaced by Carlos Spencer. Francis had steered the ship expertly to that point, exhibiting his tactical versatility and keeping his side off the canvas through accurate goal kicking. Spencer would have to suppress his natural inclination for the cavalier for the Lions to maintain their charge.
He couldn’t, and the Saders decisive third try can be traced backed to his decision not to clear his lines in the 22m, preferring instead to run it out. Thomas Waldrom pounced on a loose ball, drew his marker and put Adam Whitelock away. Slade converted, taking his side into a 16-point lead with a quarter of the match to run.
Earl Rose reduced the deficit by three but it was another Spencer error that gifted the Saders the bonus-point try. Wigan Pekeur spilled the pivot’s low pass and the Saders pounced, shifting the ball down the line to Maitland for his brace. There was still time for Willie Heinz to compound the Lions’ misery with a late try.
A torturous tour just gets worse for the Lions, but they will undoubtedly fancy their chances against the Highlanders in Dunedin next week. Whether that confidence is misplaced will be determined by their willingness to build on the more pragmatic foundation they laid today and whether they improve defensively. Don’t hold your breath.
By Ryan Vrede