The British & Irish Lions made the most of a powerful second-half pack performance to grind down the Maori All Blacks and secure a record 32-10 victory in their fifth game on Tour.
Four first-half penalties from Leigh Halfpenny – who finished the game with 20 points – meant the Lions were 12-10 in front at the break, Liam Messam’s breakaway try and a Damian McKenzie penalty in response for the Maori.
But after the break – when Tawera Kerr-Barlow saw yellow – the Lions scrum earned a penalty try before Maro Itoje burrowed over soon after.
The final quarter saw the Lions turn the screw, their driving maul continuing to prosper while Ben Te’o and Sean O’Brien both went close to a third try. Halfpenny remained perfect from the tee to seal the win and lay down a marker ahead of the Test series with the All Blacks that begins next weekend.
The Lions have never lost in Rotorua and in the stadium known locally as the Hangi Pit – after the traditional Maori cooking technique – it was the tourists who started red-hot.
Jonathan Sexton stood flat, threatening the gain-line and putting runners into holes at every opportunity as the Lions built the phases in the Maori 22. And when Messam compounded a James Lowe error by refusing to roll away, Halfpenny opened the scoring with a penalty.
The Maori had barely touched the ball in the first five minutes as Conor Murray picked up where he left off against the Crusaders with pinpoint box kicking. All Black Rieko Ioane knocked on soon after and the Maori went offside allowing Halfpenny to double the lead.
But all that hard work was undone in the 12th minute as the Maori struck, Nehe Milner-Skudder chipped through and when George North and Halfpenny failed to deal with the greasy ball, Messam was on hand to hack through and dive on the ball for the game’s first try. McKenzie added the extras to put the hosts in front but the Lions were fizzing with ball in hand, and when the ball was released left on halfway Jonathan Davies went carving through up to the line. The try was not forthcoming as the Maori went offside but Halfpenny again took the points on offer for a 9-7 lead.
Itoje and O’Brien were having some real joy at slowing ball in the first half for the Lions but when the former gave away a penalty from the re-start, McKenzie immediately put the Maori back in front.
North then made up for his earlier error with a fine scramble in defence while Sexton – whose kicking from hand also caught the eye in a bright first half – nearly released Davies soon after. And after a Mako Vunipola turnover at the breakdown, the Lions went to the corner and won another penalty that Halfpenny slotted to restore the tourists’ lead at 12-10.
Despite the wet conditions, the Maori were looking to spread the ball at every opportunity with quickly-taken lineouts a regular occurrence. But a long-range penalty from McKenzie leaked wide and when Itoje won a pressure-relieving penalty the Lions went in ahead at the break.
The rain was coming down heavily now but Halfpenny remained unruffled and he slotted his fifth penalty of the night soon after the restart to open a five-point lead, and prompt a warning from referee Jaco Peyper to the Maori for persistent infringement.
Lowe then spilled a Sexton bomb and when Murray and Halfpenny worked the short side from the scrum, the full back was hit high with a no arms tackle by Kerr-Barlow and the All Black scrum half was shown a yellow card.
The game was not yet 50 minutes old and the Lions had a numerical advantage that they thought they had profited from straight away – Te’o battering at the line before Jamie George burrowed and went close.
The TMO could not find conclusive evidence that ball was over the line but in the end the deserved try did come as the scrum marched inexorably towards the line to earn a penalty try. With the new World Rugby laws now in effect, no conversion was needed for the seven-point score and the Lions were 22-10 in front.
The Maori were still down to 14, and when a Davies kick through forced another five-metre scrum, the Lions front eight pushed it close before Itoje did the rest. Halfpenny continued his perfect run from the tee with the extras and the Lions were 19 points to the good before the hour-mark.
Kerr-Barlow then returned from his sin-bin while the Lions emptied their bench to try and turn the screw – Tour captain Sam Warburton one of the men introduced into the fray.
O’Brien – now switched to the blindside – almost went through soon after and when the Maori were again penalised Halfpenny made it seven from seven from the tee for a 32-10 lead.
Te’o was the next to storm through but the chance was lost and the Lions had to settle for a 22-point margin of victory – their biggest-ever win over the Maori.