Convincing Lions beat New Zealand Maori 32-10

By STEVE McMORRAN - AP Sports Writer 17 June 2017, 12:00AM

The British and Irish Lions built confidence a week out from the first rugby test against New Zealand when they ground their way to a highly efficient 32-10 win over the New Zealand Maori at Rotorua on Saturday.

Lock Maro Itoje scored a try, the Lions received a penalty try from scrum superiority and fullback Leigh Halfpenny kicked 20 points from six penalties and a conversion as the Lions enjoyed a successful dress rehearsal for the first test at Eden Park.

A day after watching New Zealand demolish Samoa 78-0, with 12 tries, the Lions needed to make a statement of their own and they did so with a largely flawless performance against a strong Maori team.

The match was thought likely to be the Lions' toughest before the first test and their almost full-strength lineup rose to the occasion, shutting the Maori out.

There was little pretty about the Lions' performance — they seldom chanced the ball along their backline after a few desultory attempts in the first half. Instead, they achieved an overwhelming superiority up front, packing a dominant scrum, and commanding almost 70 percent of possession over both halves which gave them good field position.

With those qualities they were able to take charge of the match in the second spell, and after a first half in which the lead changed four times.

From a sound set-piece which allowed them to kick accurately behind the Maori line, the Lions were able to exert a constant and suffocating pressure.

The Lions forwards carried the ball forward strongly, keeping possession through long series of phases which sapped the strength and resistance of the Maori and steadily broke down their resistance. Prop Mako Vunipola and Itoje were particularly prominent in the game of attrition the Lions developed and which they will likely play in the three-test series to come.

"Every game is based off good set-piece. It goes a long way to winning a game and I thought the boys were very good tonight," Lions captain Peter O'Mahony said. "The lads were huge in the second row in our lineout defense and lineout attack and obviously the boys in the front row drove our scrum."

The Lions' defense was also sound though seldom tested by a Maori lineup which contained some of the most dangerous of New Zealand's Super Rugby players — Damian McKenzie at flyhalf, James Lowe at fullback, and All Black Rieko Ioane on the left wing.

Apart from a try against the run of play to captain Liam Messam in the first half, the Maori were unable to mount any coherent attacking play and their spirit flagged against the smothering defense that the Lions sustained for all 80 minutes.

Conor Murray was again outstanding at scrumhalf, kicking dangerously into the box and casually picking up runners to sustain long attacking movements. Jonathan Sexton at flyhalf, whose performance came under greater scrutiny after the quad injury which has sidelined England No. 10 Owen Farrell, also had a strong game, running at the defensive line and tackling strongly in the inside channel.

Ben Te'o pummeled the ball forward in midfield when asked to do so and the Lions' back three played their part as ball carriers in tight quarters without ever having the chance to really chance their arm out wide.

The only concern for the Lions was, perhaps, the slightly diffident performance of veteran George North on the left wing.

Tour captain Sam Warburton, who continues a slow comeback from a knee injury, took the field for the last 15 minutes.

The All Blacks will likely have been impressed with the efficiency of the Lions' display after a few minor hiccups in the first half.

Halfpenny's faultless kicking gave the Lions an early 6-0 lead but they found themselves behind with Messam's try. North failed to defuse a kick behind the line from winger Nehe Milner-Skudder and Messam won the race to his own kick behind the line.

Halfpenny put the Lions ahead again but the Maori reclaimed the lead with a Damian McKenzie penalty. Halfpenny's fourth goal gave the Lions a 12-10 lead at halftime and they never looked like relinquishing that advantage.

After going ahead 15-10 they piled on scrum pressure to win a penalty try in the 51st, when the Maori lost scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow to the sin-bin for a dangerous tackle.

Further pressure led to Itoje's try in the 53rd.

"We were stuck down in our own half for pretty much all of that match," Maori captain Ash Dixon said. "We didn't have a lot of momentum in the second half and we paid the price there."

By STEVE McMORRAN - AP Sports Writer 17 June 2017, 12:00AM

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