By Mick Reid*
The Lions botched a perfect chance with the first loss of their 2017 tour to the Blues last night, with British media left lamenting a piece of Sonny Bill magic.
After a week of copping it from all sides, they were finally (mercifully) letting their performance do the talking. Until, that is, the 74th minute and a bittersweet try by replacement Ihaia West.
"Lions stunned by late Blues try as tourists suffer first defeat", lamented The Telegraph.
The Scotsman was less forgiving. They "botched the perfect chance", said its man, a moment of Sonny Bill Williams magic (a sublime offload to set up that late try) was all it took to sink the Lions 22-16 at Eden Park.
Watch video highlights from the game here:
With their backs against the wall, Warren Gatland's men had come out all guns blazing. "The Lions, skippered by the Welsh hooker Ken Owens, will be frustrated by the outcome, having initially looked the better team, only to mislay their rhythm on a showery night in Auckland," said the Guardian, nicely summing up the not-so-nice mood.
Because, even if there was hope in the performance, there was little solace in the result. As The Telegraph pointed out: "The 2017 tourists continue to labour, continue to suffer, losing to the weakest of New Zealand's franchises."
It was a point not lost on Gatland. "The Blues, this is the Real McCoy, Warren?" the coach was asked on Sky Sports. "Yeah," he replied. "Even though they have been bottom of the New Zealand conference table."
All in all, he has had a tough week in front of the cameras after last Saturday's scrappy win over the Provincial Barbarians, but is putting a brave face on it.
The Lions, he was widely reported as saying, take more from losses than easy wins, along with his sense there will not be that much of a difference between the Super Rugby quintet and the All Blacks, not least as they've been together since the start of the calendar year.
"I thought it was a step up on Saturday. There are a few areas from the set piece that we need to tidy up. The scrum was excellent and we kept putting them under pressure and generally the lineout was good on our ball."
Yes, agreed the press pack, who thought Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes had advanced their claims for Test involvement, along with Leigh Halfpenny, whose 11 points with the boot kept the tourists in touch. Disciplined, though, they were not; that's 29 penalties in the first two games.
Looking better then, but not good enough. Former Lion Jeremy Guscott, while acknowledging they had created quick ball and improved their line speed from Whangarei, also noted a lack of continuity, cohesion and understanding.
"There has to be a sea-change in intensity and commitment on the pitch from the Lions," he said in his BBC analysis.
Another old Lion, Ugo Monye, was of the same opinion: "The impact of the Lions losing to the Blues cannot be underestimated... Not quite panic stations but the Lions need to get this tour back on track in Canterbury."
And as The Scotsman grouched: "Whatever the improvements from the tour-opening win over the Provincial Barbarians, the cold facts are that the Lions lost a match they ought to have won."
It is a common refrain from the past week, the lack of attacking ideas, the oft-repeated and unflattering accusations of 'Warrenball', tartly dismissed by the Lions camp.
"I don't know what Warrenball means," protested assistant Rob Howley. "Have we played that over the last few years? I'm not too sure."
So, Auckland, a missed opportunity? According to Howley, it would be unwise of the Lions to reveal their full hand until the Tests starts. Fair enough, but best get a hurry-on, sport.
* Mick Reid is an Australian journalist who has called Old Blighty home for too long. A late convert to the oval ball game, he has worked at the past three Rugby World Cups and considers himself a neutral - of sorts.