Lions raise game to beat Crusaders 12-3 in 3rd tour match
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) The British and Irish Lions produced an impressive defensive performance to beat the Crusaders 12-3 on Saturday, ending the Christchurch-based team's unbeaten record this season and putting the Lions' New Zealand tour back on track after a midweek loss to the Blues.
Flyhalf Owen Farrell kicked three first-half penalties to one by Richie Mo'unga for the Crusaders, and the Lions then added another for the only points of the second half in a huge confidence boost a fortnight out from the first test against New Zealand.
After leaking four tries in their first two matches - one in a 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians and three in a 22-6 loss to the Auckland-based Blues - the Lions found the defensive resilience which will be crucial against the All Blacks.
While the Lions didn't score a try to add to the two in their first two games, their attacking game improved immeasurably, gaining pace, accuracy and urgency. The Lions dominated possession, held it for long periods and advanced the ball through the outstanding ball-carrying of players such as prop Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Peter O'Mahony and the replacement C.J. Stander.
England's Farrell, who started at flyhalf but moved to inside center after an injury to Jonathan Davies, brought sharpness to the attack at first receiver, distributing the ball well and picking out runners such as Davies, Ben Te'o, Anthony Watson and Liam Williams.
Williams and replacement Watson - a tryscorer in the opening tour match - brought a long-range attacking threat when the game opened up in the second half.
The Lions played an accurate kicking game and won the contest for possession in the air. The box kicking of scrumhalf Conor Murray was outstanding and Farrell and later Jonathan Sexton also kicked infield to good effect.
But it was the massive performance by the Lions in the defense that decided the match and will have brought most pleasure to the Lions. The tourists recognized after their loss to the Blues that it was vital to shut down the off-loading games against New Zealand teams and they did that with a tireless effort Saturday against perhaps the best off-loading team in New Zealand.
The Crusaders, averaging five tries a game this season, have won 14-straight matches in Super Rugby this season - a club record - but could find no way to break down the Lions' defense as pressure forced them into handling errors.
''We were pleased with the defense,'' Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones said. ''We probably have to be a bit more clinical in some of those line breaks, especially on the left side and when we get inside the 22.
''But we were happy with the team effort tonight to give the fans that have come out to support us something to celebrate and we've got some momentum for the rest of the series.''
The Lions lost fullback Stuart Hogg and center Jonathan Davies to head knocks in the first half; Hogg was bloodied in a collision with teammate Murray and Davies did not return after being dazed in a tackle.
Their scrum was also under pressure against the Crusaders' pack which included an all-All Blacks tight five. The Crusaders let themselves down with poor handling in slippery conditions and a lack of discipline.
They lost two kickoffs in the first half and conceded half a dozen soft penalties while dropping passes.
''We needed to win,'' Lions coach Warren Gatland said. ''We felt we'd improved in the second half and it was another step up tonight ... I'm more pleased with the result than the performance, we needed that.''
Gatland praised the defensive performance of the Lions.
''We worked hard on our defense, on getting off the line and putting them under some pressure,'' he said.
With a sound base at lineouts and at breakdowns, the Lions achieved good field position. That allowed Farrell to put them ahead with his first penalty in the 11th minute and to double the score with his second four minutes later.
Mo'unga reduced the margin with a penalty in the 24th minute and the Lions went close to scoring two minutes later when Davies barrelled onto Farrell's pass close to the line only to be injured in Mo'unga's tackle.
Farrell made the halftime lead 9-3 with a penalty 10 minutes from the break.
The Crusaders might have scored from a clean break by center Jack Goodhue in the 51st when Farrell missed a tackle. But Goodhue's kick to the left flank was knocked on by winger George Bridge.
Farrell made the game safe with his last penalty in the 70th.