Jamie George has laid down the challenge to the All Blacks by admitting the British and Irish Lions will only get better ahead of the first Test on Saturday, having come through their two biggest challenges so far on the tour of New Zealand with flying colours.
The Lions may have suffered two defeats along the way, but what looks to be the Test side has beaten both the Crusaders and now the Maori All Blacks and held them to a cumulative 13 points, an incredibly impressive achievement given the attacking dangers that lie in the Land of the Long White Cloud.
The Crusaders were yet to lose this season until they met the Lions and were averaging 37 points per game, while the Maori went into Saturday’s encounter at Rotorua International Stadium with an eight-year international winning streak in the bag, having not lost in their last 20 games against Test opposition.
The 32-10 victory was built on scrum dominance and a stubborn defence that George believes is yet to be properly tested, with the Lions keeping the Maori scoreless for 58 minutes, and barring Liam Messam’s try that came from a mix-up between Leigh Halfpenny and George North, the Maori did not have another clear-cut chance to cross the whitewash.
“I feel there is much more to come, I really do,” George said afterwards. “In the teams I’ve played in, the Crusaders to this game – [there’s been] huge progression. You’ve got to look at the way we defended tonight. We felt very comfortable in defence.
“We are trying to put teams under as much pressure as physically possible and I thought we did that. I thought the centres were fantastic in leading the defence. Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies were unbelievable and you just have to try and follow their lead. I thought we put them under a lot of pressure barring the try which was the bounce of a ball.”
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Messam’s try briefly put the Maori ahead after two Halfpenny penalties, but the full-back alone could have won the match with an impressive 20-point haul, and the Welshman is yet to miss a kick at goal on this tour with 11 from 11. After George went close to scoring from a pick-and-go in the 51st minute – proclaiming “I thought I scored!” after the match – the ensuing five metre scrum that collapsed convinced referee Jaco Peyper to award a penalty try, with Maro Itoje adding a second with his own powerful surge from close range five minutes later to seal a convincing victory.
The dominance in the scrum was something that gave the Lions plenty of hope that they can take the fight to the All Blacks at Eden Park on Saturday, especially given that the likely starting front-row will be the same line-up that George, Mako Vunipola and Tadhg Furlong enjoyed success against the Crusaders eight days ago. That Peyper will be the man in the middle again in Auckland will only help the Lions’ cause further.
“We looked at the scrum and had a nice chat. As front rowers everyone just felt we weren’t really getting what we wanted out of the scrum,” George added. “We changed a few things and had a really honest conversation and just said ‘look it is probably not good enough, it is not the platform we want to be giving ourselves’ so we changed it and it paid off.
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“There were just little intricate details, we were just trying to put more detail into what we are doing and I thought it went really well. We just have to keep pushing and getting better.”
Watching on as the Lions eased to their third victory over the tour, there was an obvious resemblance to the way that Saracens have forged their recent dominance on the European stage, and that was no surprise given four of the tight-five hailed from the back-to-back Champions Cup winners.
The scrum advantage was complemented by a fully-functioning lineout, run by the lock George Kruis, that saw the Lions seal 100 per cent of their own ball, and with Leinster’s Furlong thrown into the mix – a standout performer once again – this is clearly an area where the Lions feel they can take the fight to the reigning world champions over the next three weeks.
“It’s a brilliant pack,” added George. “Look at the pack tonight; four of the tight-five were Sarries and England which is obviously fantastic for those guys. The type of rugby we play for Saracens and England is one that has dominance up front. Then add in the class of Tadhg Furlong and the back-row guys – it’s amazing to be part of that eight.”
The Test side will now put their feet up, figuratively speaking, as Warren Gatland turns to those players who did not feature in the Maori victory along with the six new call-ups to the squad to tackle the Chiefs on Tuesday, though there’s no doubting now that all eyes are on the All Blacks.
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