Lions put All Blacks on notice with impressive win
MOCKED after losing to the Blues earlier in the week, the British and Irish Lions got their tour back on track after shutting out New Zealand's premier Super Rugby team, the Crusaders, to win 12-3 in Christchurch on Saturday night.
Many were willing to write the Lions off after going down 22-16 to New Zealand's lowest-ranked Super Rugby side on Wednesday.
But Warren Gatland's tourists brought an intensity and physicality not yet seen Down Under to silence some of the critics and lift the morale on what shapes as one of the most gruelling and difficult tours on record.
While Saturday's skipper Alun Wyn Jones said that the Lions had "never fallen off the track", his coach admitted post-match that his group "needed that" win to give them confidence moving forward.
Here's what we learnt from the Lions' gritty win over the Crusaders.
THE IRISHMAN THAT HOLDS THE KEY FOR THE LIONS
All the pre-match talk centred on Owen Farrell, the Saracens and England playmaker, getting his first start in the No 10 jersey.
But the star of the show was the man who played inside him, Conor Murray.
The Irish halfback was simply outstanding against the Crusaders.
In Australia we've heard calls to ban the box kick, due to the ineffectiveness that the play often results in.
But that's because there's not a Aussie Super Rugby No 9 who is any good at it.
Murray's kicking from the base of the ruck was marvellous.
All night he kept putting boot to ball and on each occasion it generated better field position for his team.
The feature of it was his accuracy and the contests it generated in the air.
Murray proved to Australians that you can kick against New Zealand opposition, you've just got to be good at it - and back it up with a committed chase.
Elsewhere, Murray's pace, delivery and combination with Farrell was first class.
It looked like the duo had been playing together for years, not days.
YOU SHALL NOT PASS
The Lions' defensive line speed was on show against the Blues earlier in the week, but the effectiveness in the tackle was absent.
Consequently Sonny Bill Williams and co offloaded at will and all that was needed was Ihaia West to see some space and the match was gone.
Against the Crusaders, the Lions picked off their fancied opposition with ease.
With the exception of one magnificent run from centre Jack Goodhue, who split Sexton and Farrell and almost created a try for his winger, George Bridge, the Crusaders didn't threaten the Lions' line.
Let's not forget that this Crusaders side has averaged five tries a match in Super Rugby this year and is the only undefeated one, too.
They might have been missing All Black centre Ryan Crotty, but the Crusaders' attack looked pedestrian and their skills floundered under the line speed of the Lions.
THE FINAL PASS
So that's two tries in three matches for the Lions.
It's a statistic which will be slightly concerning for Gatland and one that no doubt the New Zealand press will be ramming home, as they seek to turn the pressure cooker on the touring party.
But there were signs that the Lions are headed in the right direction.
All that's left though is executing the final pass.
Had they done so against the Crusaders, they would have racked up three or four tries.
They will come, as the combinations start to gel.
RACE FOR THE NO 15 JERSEY STILL WIDE OPEN
Stuart Hogg won't be too pleased with his teammate, Murray.
After starting the tour with some nerves against the Provincial Barbarians, Hogg needed a strong performance for his own confidence as well as his Test chances.
But the Scottish fullback was forced from the field in the 20th minute after Murray lifted his elbow in an attempt to avoid Hogg, but instead collected his head.
The collision saw Hogg clutching at his face and in a world of agony as blood teemed from his head.
The dynamic and elusive 15 didn't return.
His replacement, Anthony Watson, was superb.
He threatened the line and his booming boot was put to good use.
And with outside back Liam Williams delivering a more composed performance on the wing and Leigh Halfpenny performing solidly against the Blues a few nights earlier, time is running out for Hogg, the favourite leading into the tour, to wear the fullback jersey in the Tests.
Wales back-rower Sam Warburton is the Lions captain, but he's not the best No 7 in the squad.
Who would wear the captain's armband was one of the major talking points in the build-up to the Lions squad announcement.
None of Sam Warburton, Rory Best or Alun Wyn Jones were guaranteed starters for the Lions, but in the end Gatland settled on the man who led the Lions Down Under in 2013 to a series win.
But the form of Sean O'Brien means that Warburton shouldn't be assured his position in the 23, let along the starting XV.
O'Brien is a man for the big occasion.
His influence in the back-row has never been doubted, but injury has often plagued him and slowed his progress.
But against the Crusaders he was devastating.
He was strong in the tackle, carried well and showed his deceptive pace by reeling in Crusaders fly-half Richie Mo'unga to deny him a try.