Classic Lions tear Italy to shreds
Uncaged for the first time in four days the Classic Lions tore Italy apart at the National Sports Centre last night.
In a 13-try mauling of the World Rugby Classic debutants, the Lions dominated a completely one-sided affair that did little to reveal how much of a threat to New Zealand's dominance they might be this week.
The Lions may well have paid a heavy price for booking their place in tomorrow's semi-final against the All Blacks though with Josh Lewsey's future in doubt.
Lewsey broke a rib during the closing stages of last night's game and left the ground in an ambulance moments after his side had completed their victory.
How costly that will prove to be is difficult to tell, Lewsey scored one try and created two others with a couple of typically smart breaks coming in from the left wing, however, those were all against an Italian side whose tackling wasn't so much weak as almost non-existent.
In the face of a Lions backline with power, pace and not a little international experience the Azzuri's defence was blown away with a force akin to the winds that continue to batter the Island and delayed this year's event for two days.
Hal Luscombe and Ben Breeze ran in three tries apiece, James Topping bagged two more and there were also scores from Gareth Archer, Colin Charvis, Fraser Waters and Lewsey. Andy Gomersall also contributed 12 points with the boot.
“The performance was about making a statement,” said Luscombe, “and also we've been sitting around waiting for the last four days just to get out there and literally the guys have been absolutely gagging to get out on the pitch and we showed that.
“I think our display was a combination of things. We've had a bit of time to run, we've had the four days to have a bit of a run out, but at the same time we've got some really quality players in the team as well.”
At times the Lions looked like they had been together for weeks, not days, which is not to say that there weren't some weaknesses to their game. Italy competed well for the ball at the breakdown and if they could have put more than three phases together may well have made the Lions pay for their not infrequent infringing on the floor.
The All Blacks will be a different proposition and a game many would have liked to have seen as the final on Saturday is likely to be decided by the narrowest of margins.
“New Zealand, irrespective of age group, New Zealand is going to be a tough, tough game,” said Luscombe. “We saw them play the first game and it's going to be a totally different game. We have to make our first up tackles otherwise we might be in for a long night.”
Other than Lewsey's injury the only blip on the Lions' night was the late try they conceded to Italy with centre Cristian Zanoletti getting over in the corner after his forwards finally made the Lions pay for being penalised once too often inside their own 22.
New Zealand's route to the semi-final was marginally more difficult as they came up against a Classic Eagles side that proved far sturdier in defence than Italy.
Still, the All Blacks were far too good and the US too naive going forward for the stringent work of skipper Kevin Whitcher and his forwards to do anything other than slow the inevitable.
The Kiwis' 39-0 victory was built on the back of some punishing running by prop Kevin Nepia, some fine work by flanker Marty Holah and the power and pace of lock Chris Middleton who grabbed two of his side's eight tries.
Brendan Danj got the ball rolling after 10 minutes when he finished off a fine move under the posts that started with a rolling maul from just inside the US half, saw scrum-half Jason Spice slip through a static defence and send Danj on his way.
Middleton added two more and he was followed across the line by Jamie Nutbrown, Brendan Laney, Romi Ropati and Spice as the All Blacks' vastly superior ability told.
Their opponents meanwhile did create some opportunities for themselves, but instead of keeping the game tight and trying to kick for territory they tried to outrun the All Blacks down the flanks and were punished heavily for trying to do so.
The closest the Eagles came to scoring was deep into the second half when they finally got some quick ball out to full-back Luis Tulio inside the All Blacks' 22, however, with a two man overlap Tulio opted to cut back inside and was smothered by defenders.