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Owen Farrell kicked four penalties to earn The British & Irish Lions a pulsating victory over the Crusaders and hand the Super Rugby side their first loss of the season.
Behind a dominant pack performance from the 2017 tourists, Farrell slotted three kicks in the first half to one from Richie Mo’unga for a 9-3 lead.
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And despite losing both Stuart Hogg and Jonathan Davies to injury in the opening period the Lions backline improvised superbly with replacements Jonathan Sexton and Anthony Watson to the fore.
Farrell’s fourth penalty of the night in the second half stretched the lead to nine points at 12-3 and that was how it stayed.
The Lions will now carry some serious momentum into Dunedin on Tuesday when they take on the Highlanders but also with room for improvement after being held tryless despite carving out numerous chances.
After another spine-tingling haka – the first in the Crusaders’ franchise history – it was the Lions who burst into life after Luke Romano spilled the kick-off, Davies on the charge and seemingly about to put George North in the clear but the final pass was intercepted by George Bridge and the chance was lost.
However, the Lions forward pack was up for the battle and when the scrum won a penalty in kickable range Farrell made no mistake for the first points of the game.
Conditions were greasy in the evening Christchurch air and when Mo’unga spilled a Farrell bomb on the quarter-hour mark the scrum again got to work to win a penalty and Farrell made it 6-0.
The game was being played at Test-match intensity but the Lions hopes were hit by the loss of Hogg soon after – the full back having to go off after colliding with Conor Murray’s elbow with Watson introduced in his place.
The hosts were rousing from their early slumber, and when they won their first scrum penalty they enjoyed their first period of real pressure which eventually earned a penalty that Mo’unga slotted to trim the lead to 6-3.
Romano was then again caught out by the re-start, but Davies knocked on and departed soon after – bringing Sexton into proceedings.
But the Lions did not miss a beat and when the hosts went offside at a maul, Farrell restored a six-point lead just after the half-hour mark.
The rest of the half was frantic, Sean O’Brien and Ben Te’o both carrying with full-blooded intent but not for nothing are the Crusaders unbeaten this year in Super Rugby.
And the hosts thought they had the game’s first try soon after, Codie Taylor burrowing near the post but the TMO could not award it and the Lions finally relieved the pressure, Mako Vunipola superb in defending the maul all night long.
The tourists then ended the half on the front foot with Farrell – now in the centres – showing some lovely touches but they could not add to the score and it was 9-3 at the break.
Owen Farrell kicked three key penalties in the first half
The Crusaders came out early for the second period but it was the Lions who hit the ground running, their line speed continued to force the hosts into errors.
But they failed to make their dominance count, Farrell missing a simple penalty and Liam Williams spilling Te’o’s tough pass down the left when in the clear.
And the Crusaders – with an all new-front row – nearly made them pay soon after, centre Jack Goodhue scorching clear before delivering a clever grubber that Bridge knocked on with the try-line begging.
But despite the hosts’ front-row reinforcements, the Lions continued to get the nudge at scrum time and so nearly had their first try before the hour mark, Watson terrorising Crusaders defenders with his footwork before swivelling over but Williams was adjudged to have knocked on in the build-up.
Soon after Watson and Sexton again cut loose but CJ Stander – on for the impressive O’Brien – knocked on and the Crusaders survived.
After the hour mark Warren Gatland called for reinforcements, Maro Itoje and Jack McGrath thrust into the fray with Ken Owens and Dan Cole not far behind.
Still only six points in front at 9-3, the Lions desperately needed the next score that their dominance warranted.
Murray’s pinpoint kicking continued to turn the hosts’ back three, Williams was getting no end of joy down the left wing and when the home side once again went offside, Farrell made no mistake for a 12-3 lead with ten minutes left.
See the moment Johnny Sexton and Taulupe Faletau combined for a key turnover
And in the face of fierce pressure in the closing stages, the tourists held on to claim a serious scalp and gather momentum before the Test series against the All Blacks.
For British and Irish Lions:
Pens: Farrell 4
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi
Replacements: 16 Hame Faiva, 17 Alex Hodgman, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Jimmy Tupou, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Ihaia West, 23 TJ Faiane
British and Irish Lions: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Elliot Daly, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 James Haskell, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Ken Owens (c), 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Rory Best, 17 Joe Marler, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Peter O’Mahony, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Johnny Sexton, 23 Liam Williams
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Angus Gardner (Australia)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)