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Maori All Blacks 10-32 Lions: Leigh Halfpenny perfect from the tee as ruthless tourists win in Rotorua

Mirror logo Mirror 17/06/2017 Alex Spink
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Warren Gatland breathed a huge sigh of relief as his Lions returned to winning ways - and silenced their Kiwi critics.

The New Zealand Maori had beaten the 2005 Lions and there were high hopes locally that Gatland’s men were next in line for a bloody nose.

It proved hilariously wide of the mark as a Lions team bearing an uncanny resemblance to the side that will line up for the first Test in seven days time, won easily.

Steam rises during a scrum © David Davies/PA Steam rises during a scrum

Two third quarter tries killed the contest after Leigh Halfpenny had softened the Maori up with the sort of flawless goal kicking performance that is his trademark.

Perhaps most encouragingly, the Lions did not concede a single penalty in the second half.

So much for the absence of Owen Farrell being an insurmountable obstacle. Halfpenny kicked seven from seven, Johnny Sexton ran the show at fly-half.

Credits: Sportsfile © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Sportsfile

At the final whistle Gatland’s smile said it all. It had been a match the Lions simply could not afford to lose.

Defeat in Dunedin, and the sloppy nature of it, had set the tour back on its heels.

Farrell’s quad muscle injury had further dented the belief, and boss Warren Gatland calling up half a dozen Celtic players because they were in the area rather than deserving cases rightly brought a shed load of invective down on the whole operation.

Damian McKenzie of the Maori All Blacks is tackled by Maro Itoje of the Lions © David Rogers/Getty Damian McKenzie of the Maori All Blacks is tackled by Maro Itoje of the Lions

The only way out was through winning rugby and Gatland’s charges set about the Maori clear in that knowledge.

With the opposition dressed in black and the referee, Jaco Peyper, the man with the whistle in next week’s first Test at Eden Park, this was a dress rehearsal in every respect.

The Lions treated it as such, asking Halfpenny to build a lead with penalty goals in the first half and then going for the jugular after the break.

By then it was 12-10 to the tourists, only the second time they’d led at half-time all tour.

Johnny Sexton of the Lions is wrapped up by Charlie Ngatai of the Maori All Blacks © David Rogers/Getty Johnny Sexton of the Lions is wrapped up by Charlie Ngatai of the Maori All Blacks

Still not comfortable, still ragged out wide, still lacking precision and cutting edge when opportunity knocked.

But these Saturday Lions are a very different beast to the winless midweek crew. They believe they belong. They rate themselves.

No matter that the All Blacks had pulverised Samoa 78-0 the night before, scoring 12 tries in the process, these men are here to win a series.

What was it Sean O’Brien had said on the eve of match? “I’d be lying if I said we shouldn’t be expecting to beat the All Blacks with the calibre of player we have and the depth of squad we have.”

Credits: Getty © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Getty

The longer the game went on, the more the Lions’ rugby reflected that attitude.

The contest turned decisively on 47 minutes when scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow put his shoulder into Halfpenny’s head on a defensive play.

He was shown a yellow card, which could well have been red. No matter, the Lions used the 10 minutes to win the game.

Credits: Getty Images © Provided by Trinity Mirror Shared Services Limited Credits: Getty Images

First scrum pressure won a penalty try, then moments later the outstanding Maro Itoje went over to put clear blue water between the Lions and their vanquished opponents.

Halfpenny completed the job with his sixth penalty, sparking celebration amongst the Lions fans in a 28,177 crowd.

The Lions are still not sharp enough in attack. That’s a fact. They will still be heavy underdogs against the world champions. That’s a fact too.

But the tour is back on the rails and they go into the Test series with a puncher’s chance.

Watch: Gatland explains his decision to call up Cory Hill, Kristian Dacey, Gareth Davies and Tomas Francis (Sky Sports)

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