Auckland, New Zealand (AP) — Winger Rieko Ioane scored two tries in his first test start as New Zealand quelled a spirited performance from the British and Irish Lions to win the first test 30-15 Saturday and take a 1-0 lead in the three-test series.
Ioane dived over in the left corner in the 55th minute to settle the nerves of an All Blacks team which had become rattled in the face of a fiery Lions performance, largely inspired by Wales fullback Liam Williams, who justified his risky selection by bringing to life the tourists’ previously dormant attacking game.
Williams created a try for Sean O’Brien in the 37th minute which brought the Lions back into the game at 13-8 after New Zealand had threatened to take control.
But Ioane’s two second-half tries, his second from an uncharacteristic error by Williams, made the game safe as New Zealand showed their superiority.
Williams also led attacking raids early in the second half which lifted the Lions and unsettled New Zealand until Ioane soothed their nerves with a try that gave the All Blacks a 20-8 lead.
He scored again in the 70th minute to make it 30-8 — and put the game beyond doubt, though the Lions hit back with a late try to Rhys Webb. Hooker Codie Taylor also scored a try for the All Blacks.
The Lions won many new fans beyond the 20,000 who traveled from Britain to be among the 49,000 crowd at Eden Park. But they were pushing against the tide of history — the All Blacks have not lost at Eden Park in 38 tests since 1994 and haven’t lost a test to the Lions in 24 years.
With Saturday’s win the All Blacks are now strongly favored to win the series, last won by the Lions in 1971.
The All Blacks had been expected from the outset to play attacking rugby and the Lions to emphasise defense, but it was the Lions who came close to producing the first try in only the second minute.
Williams was at the heart of it and that set a theme of the match. The lithe fullback dashed into a huge gap in midfield as the All Blacks stood off tackles and Williams found support right and left. He turned the ball left to Elliot Daly and the England winger looked likely to score, hurling himself at the corner flag only to be taken into touch in the tackles of Israel Dagg and Beauden Barrett.
Weight of possession began slowly to build in the All Blacks’ favor as they met the Lions kicking threat through Dagg and Ben Smith. In the 12th minute they carried the ball through a long series of phases, pushing back the Lions by degrees and Barrett unleashed his first cross kick which Lions winger Anthony Watson defused with a mark.
Barrett put the All Blacks ahead with his first penalty a minute later.
New Zealand continued on attack with the help of Lions’ handling errors and their growing superiority at breakdowns which they cleared out forcefully. Returning captain Kieran Read, lock Brodie Retallick and props Joe Moody and Owen Franks were direct and powerful ball-carriers.
Finally, and after a period of sustained pressure, the All Blacks forced a penalty close to the Lions’ line. Scrumhalf Aaron Smith took the tap quickly, catching the tourists napping, and Dagg’s wide pass found Taylor unmarked on the right flank. He took a low pass to score and Barrett added a wide-angled conversion for a 10-0 lead.
Farrell succeeded with his first penalty in the 30th minute, putting the Lions on the board at 10-3, but Barrett goaled again to restore a 10-point margin. In the meantime, the All Blacks suffered two serious injury blows, losing Ben Smith in the 27th minute to a head knock and center Ryan Crotty in the 34th to what may be the recurrence of a rib injury.
Had the All Blacks scored again quickly, the Lions might have been broken and New Zealand could have taken control. Instead, the tourists conjured a magnificent try from nothing to go to halftime at 13-8, five points behind and still very much in the game.
Coach Warren Gatland’s decision to start Williams at fullback ahead of Leigh Halfpenny proved insightful when Williams picked up a loose ball inside his own 22 and set off downfield, beating two early tackles and exposing the All Blacks’ cover defense.
He linked with center Jonathan Davies who moved the ball wider to Daly, then stayed in support to take the return pass. O’Brien made a huge amount of ground at pace to offer himself as the final receiver, diving over low, amid a crowd of tacklers.
The Lions emerged from the locker room after halftime with their confidence restored and with their willingness to attack — called into question before the match — now in full evidence. Williams launched another long-distance raid, linking with Davies who beat tackles and with Watson to stretch the All Blacks’ defense to its limits.
The Lions’ vaunted rush defense became more and more influential and the All Blacks grew frustrated as they struggled to make headway in tackles.
Ioane then took his place in the history of matches between New Zealand and the Lions. The All Blacks rolled back a Lions scrum and Read freed the ball from the wreckage, passing to Aaron Smith. The scrumhalf skipped cross field and linked with Aaron Cruden who helped to free Ioane who dived over in the left hand corner. The TMO considered a knock-on by Read before confirming the try.
Ioane scored his second when Williams fluffed a high kick and the winger recovered possession and outpaced the defense. Barrett added his fifth goal from as many attempts.
Webb’s try after the final hooter rewarded a gallant Lions performance.