Lions tour: Steve Hansen lands emphatic blow to Warren Gatland in first test
OPINION: What a test. One for the ages. The All Blacks and Lions traded blows and counter punched in a relentless encounter at Eden Park. But, by the finish, Steve Hansen had Warren Gatland on the canvas in the first of this trilogy. This test series is far from over but the Lions coach will now do well to recover. The All Blacks are not the Crusaders or New Zealand Maori. And, traditionally, they only get better from here.
With the speed and collisions on a different scale to anything we've witnessed in this arena in recent times, casualties came thick and fast. For the All Blacks, there was no more damaging loss than that of Ben Smith.
We are past the point now where the All Blacks vice captain is underrated. Smith is such an assured presence at the back; such a calming influence. Yes, he dropped Conor Murray's first two box kicks but he also ran superbly from the back, and organised the defence.
It was no coincidence the All Blacks were exposed by the Lions counter attack once Smith went off with yet another concerning head knock after 27 minutes. Not long after Ryan Crotty departed with a leg injury, too.
At that point the All Blacks were well on top but the test changed complexion with Beauden Barrett moving to fullback, Aaron Cruden coming on at first five-eighth and Anton Lienert-Brown slotting in at centre. For a while, as they attempted to adjust, the All Blacks became disjointed.
But led supremely by Kieran Read, who produced a freakish performance in his first match back after two months out, they shook off that adversity and regained composure to put Gatland's men to bed midway through the second half.
We heard a lot about the Lions wanting to be the best forward pack in the world. Asked about the heat the Lions intended to apply to his big men after the win over Samoa, Hansen had this to say:
"I've been here since 2004 and every year we get told we're going to get targeted at the set piece. It's a great challenge for our set piece. We'll look forward to it and get ourselves ready for it. Hopefully we can match if not better them."
The All Blacks did that and more in a magnificent display. Their lineout wobbled on four occasions but their scrum dominated, and they set the desired platform to play at tempo, one at least a few notched too much for the Lions to live with.
Everything the All Blacks did came at an incredible pace. Their mobile tight five offloaded; their midfield got in behind the Lions' rush defence, with Sonny Bill Williams a powerful force throughout.
Aaron Smith peppered the blindside. But the All Blacks loose forward trio set the tone more than any other area. Read laid on some huge hits and had a relentless work-rate. The standing ovation he received spoke for itself.
Jerome Kaino was an absolute beast with his carries and aggression before being replaced by Ardie Savea early in the second half. Sam Cane, often criticsied in some quarters, defended with vigour and snaffled the odd turnover.
With the All Blacks playing at such a high level, it speaks volumes of the quality of this Lions side that they found enough to put them on the backfoot at times.
Once again, though, the Lions' finishing was poor with several chances squandered. To beat the All Blacks, you simply have to take every single opportunity. The Lions did not.
They relied largely on Murray's box kicks or moments of individual brilliance to get out of trouble.
Their impetus came from Jonathan Davies and the back three, Elliot Daly and Liam Williams in particular; two bold selections from Gatland given both players featured heavily against the Chiefs on Tuesday night.
Faith was than repaid on that front, with Daly pushed out in the corner by Israel Dagg's try-saving effort. Williams, too, proved a handful, igniting a brilliant try from inside his 22, one that was finished by Sean O'Brien after going through five sets of hands.
But it wasn't enough. Not when you have a 20-year-old kid by the name of Rieko Ioane on the wing.
The All Blacks' attitude was summed up in the opening try to Codie Taylor. Quick tap from Aaron Smith, skip ball wide and the hooker effortlessly picks the pass up off his feet to score. In a test of this magnitude, few others teams have the audacity to turn down three points let alone boast a hooker with such skill.
That's the difference.
Finally, a word for Jaco Peyper. He communicated with the players and officials brilliantly, and seemed in total control. Thankfully, there can be no major complaints about the referee.
Let the result speak for itself.