Halfpenny hoists Lions to victory
17 June 2017, 11:00
Wales star Leigh Halfpenny has helped secure the British and Irish Lions a vital, morale-boosting 32-10 victory over the Maori All Blacks.
A penalty try and another score from Maro Itoje crushed the Maori spirit, with the home side given precious little sniff of stealing a win to emulate their predecessors of 2005.
The Maori stunned the Lions 19-13 some 12 years back, but here the tourists wrestled their hosts into submission.
Halfpenny's six penalties and flawless 20-point haul from the boot underpinned a muscular triumph, with the tourists dominant at the set-piece and all tight exchanges.
The Lions badly needed this victory, which will raise hopes somewhat ahead of next weekend's Test opener against the All Blacks. But their attack is still yet to fire, and they can expect New Zealand to pick at that in the almost endless talking shop ahead of the Test clashes.
Still, the win and its inherent solidity will have proved some boon to Lions head coach Warren Gatland.
The tourists' boss came under fire for apparently prioritising geographic proximity over meritocracy when drafting in four Welsh players and two from Scotland, to ease the burden on his squad ahead of the All Blacks Tests.
Even Sir Ian McGeechan - Gatland's Lions mentor - admitted the policy was "difficult to justify'', with the Lions claiming players from England and Ireland had too tiresome travel times to join the tour from Argentina and Japan.
The Lions will put their new recruits on the bench for Tuesday's Chiefs clash in Hamilton, to protect their front-line 23 ahead of Saturday's first All Blacks Test in Auckland.
Gatland has always maintained chasing Test-match victories against the back-to-back world champions must trump all other concerns however. So after copping some flak, he will have been delighted for the Lions to prevail in style in Rotorua.
Promising breaks undone by no killer instinct proved the story of a frustrating first half for the Lions, who still led 12-10 at the break.
The tourists spent all week demanding an end to stupid errors, only to gift the Maori the only try of the half.
George North continued his indifferent form by failing to claim cleanly when sliding back in a bid to sweep up a kick in behind. Nehe Milner-Skudder hacked on and Liam Messam finished.
Damian McKenzie's conversion pushed the Maori into a 7-6 lead, after Halfpenny had posted two penalties for the Lions.
The Maori proved savvy at killing the ball every time the Lions edged deep into their territory, to stop Gatland's men capping several smart moves with a try.
Johnny Sexton's half-break almost set Tadhg Furlong away, then Jon Davies dummied and swept through the line, but neither time could the Lions finish.
Halfpenny's third penalty put the Lions 9-7 ahead at the top of the second quarter, only for petulance from Itoje to cost his side.
The England lock threw the ball away after being choke-tackled, and referee Jaco Peyper pushed the visitors back 10 metres, enough to let McKenzie slot the goal, with the Maori sneaking a 10-9 lead.
Another Sexton half-break had Davies stealing through the line, only to spill the ball in contact.
Halfpenny's fifth penalty pushed the Lions into a 15-10 lead to open the second half, with George Kruis increasingly vocal as the tourists ploughed through profitable tight phases.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow was fortunate to escape a yellow card when he shoulder-charged Halfpenny in the face, with the Lions full-back sliding low after being tackled.
The Lions produced a smart driving lineout, Ben Te'o powered close, and then Jamie George burrowed to the line.
The try was chalked off however, with the officials unable to determine whether George had reached the whitewash.
The Lions then ruined the Maori scrum, not once but twice, with referee Peyper awarding a penalty try from the second. The new rules mean penalty tries are automatically worth seven points, so the Lions led 22-10 with half an hour to play.
The Lions turned the screw, forcing another five-metre scrum. Taulupe Faletau drove close, and Itoje finished off. Halfpenny's conversion pushed the Lions' lead to 29-10. By the time Kerr-Barlow returned, the Lions had won the game.