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Lions floor Maori in All Blacks dress rehearsal

June 19, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 


Leigh Halfpenny booted the British and Irish Lions to a convincing 32-10 win over the Maori All Blacks on Saturday to regain precious momentum ahead of next week’s first Test against New Zealand.


After turning 12-10 ahead, a penalty try soon after half-time and try from lock Maro Itoje — when the Maori had a man in the sin-bin — gave the Lions complete control at a wet Rotorua. Halfpenny kicked six penalties and a conversion.

“It’s important for our momentum, our confidence,” said Lions captain Peter O’Mahony.

“You don’t want to be going into a game against the All Blacks with losses under our belt. This win goes a long way to building what we want to build.”

The Lions’ confidence-boosting win, after Tuesday’s loss to the Otago Highlanders and a week before they face the All Blacks, underscored how the first Test in Auckland will be a battle of contrasting styles.

While the All Blacks ran from all angles in their 12-try, 78-0 win over Samoa on Friday, the clinical Lions stuck to their formula of mixing a kick-and-chase game from Conor Murray with strong, driving, forward play.

They had the better of the Maori in the air and at the breakdown, and they dominated the scrums in the second half.

Such was their overwhelming control, boosted by the scavenging of Sean O’Brien, that they enjoyed more than 70 percent of possession.

But despite an abundance of ball and territory they struggled to beat a tenacious Maori defence and get across the line.

The Lions did, however, successfully shut down the Maori backs and young All Blacks Nehe Milner-Skudder, Rieko Ioane and Damian McKenzie — all considered exceptional ball-runners — had few opportunities.

The one time Milner-Skudder featured it produced the game’s opening try, when he slipped through a gap and kicked ahead.

George North failed to gather the ball, allowing Liam Messam to charge through and touch down on 12 minutes.

It was not until the Maori were down to 14 men, with scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow yellow-carded for a no-arms tackle on Halfpenny, that the Lions benefited with their two tries.

The first was a seven-point penalty try when the Maori forwards, already on a warning from referee Jaco Peyper, gave way in a five-metre scrum.

The second try went to Saracens lock Itoje, who barged over after another Maori scrum disintegrated.

While the pre-match focus was on the Lions’ loose trio of Taulupe Faletau, O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, it was Itoje who was the towering force among the forwards.

By the time Kerr-Barlow returned to the fray, the fight had gone out of his forward pack and the Lions forwards were able to rumble forward with confidence.

When the Maori had a full complement of 15 on the field, the Lions camped deep in enemy territory but they could not score a try.

Halfpenny landed four penalties in the first half with McKenzie converting Messam’s try and kicking a penalty for the Maori.

In addition to the two tries in the second half for the Lions, Halfpenny added a further two penalties and a conversion.

Boot boys Biggar and Foley set for World Cup showdown

October 9, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 


Bernard Foley and Dan Biggar — who put England’s World Cup hopes to the sword on successive weekends — go boot-to-boot on Saturday.


If Foley triumphs then Australia will probably top Pool A, the toughest group at the World Cup. If Biggar stamps his authority, Wales will be the with winners.

Both came to the tournament in the shadow of high profile fly-halves such as Dan Carter, Frederic Michalak and Jonathan Sexton. But as the pool stage reaches its climax Foley and Biggar have taken the spotlight.

Biggar, who was not Wales’ first choice kicker one month ago, planted the first dagger into England with 23 points in Wales’ 28-25 win over the hosts. It was the highest haul for a Welshman against England, no mean feat given kicking duties had been imposed on him with the injury to Leigh Halfpenny.

“If you concede penalties to them then they will crucify you,” said Wallabies defence coach Nathan Grey in a compliment to Biggar and Wales.

Foley — who like Biggar is 26 — landed the killer blow to England’s World Cup chances one week later. Again in front of a packed Twickenham crowd.

His 28 points, including two superb tries, eclipsed Matt Burke’s 1998 mark of 21 points scored by an Australian against England.

“He’s a real threat at the moment,” was Wales coach Warren Gatland’s assessment of the former Sevens specialist.

Foley, who blossomed under Michael Cheika’s tutelage at the Waratahs and repaid his faith with a stunning long range penalty 30 seconds from full-time to give them their first Super Rugby title last year, is a big fan of Biggar.

“The way he has controlled the Wales games, he has been outstanding and his goal-kicking speaks for itself,” said Foley.

For Biggar it has not been a seamless ride to international stardom after winning the first of his 37 caps aged just 19. But Gatland — never the easiest man to please — appreciates that his persistence has brought its rewards.

“Dan’s competitive streak got him through a difficult period and saw him come back stronger and better,” said the New Zealander.

Neil Jenkins, Wales’s record test points scorer with 1,049 points, believes Biggar belongs with the Carters and the Sextons.

“For me, Dan is not far from being one of the best fly-halves in the world,” said the 44-year-old, who is the Welsh team’s kicking coach.

“He is exceptional kicking for goal, and has been since he was 15 when I first got to know him at the club I was with.

“He has never had to work too hard on his technique.

“He is in a good place mentally and has all the parts needed for a good kicker.”

Gatland, who orchestrated the British and Irish Lions 2-1 Test series win over the Wallabies two years ago, said that closing down Foley was imperative.

“He’s a real threat at the moment,” said Gatland.

“His relationship with (scrum-half Will)Genia has developed.

“A player we’re conscious of will pose us problems. We will look to shut him down as much as we can, try to pressure him.

“He brings players in often and is a real threat.

“His goal-kicking has been pretty good too.”

Genia for said Foley, who will win his 24th cap on Saturday, had grown up fast in the daunting Test arena.

“He has got a really good all round game,” said Genia.

“He is a good passer of the ball and a good kicker whilst his communication and leadership has come on in leaps and bounds as was clear last weekend when he controlled the game really really well.”

Cheika, though, says Foley is still a work in progress.

“There is no special relationship between him and I,” said Cheika.

“He is a tough man, for in the past three years at Waratahs he has never been injured.

“Foley is someone who is still in a developing phase. He has a lot of experience to gain as a fly-half.”

Writing off Wales will fire up Gatland’s side – Thomas

September 10, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 


Injuries to influential fullback Leigh Halfpenny and scrumhalf Rhys Webb make Wales big Rugby World Cup underdogs but writing them off could work in their favour, former captain Gareth Thomas said.

Rugby Union - Wales v Italy - Dove Men Test - Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales - 5/9/15 Wales' Rhys Webb leaves the field injured Action Images via Reuters / Rebecca Naden Livepic

Welsh preparations were dealt a huge blow when the pair were ruled out of the tournament, which starts next Friday, after suffering injuries in the warm-up win over Italy at the weekend.

"What I think the injuries will do is send Wales in under the radar," Thomas told WalesOnline.

"It was always going to be a difficult group and Wales were always going to be under pressure but I think it’s a good thing if we’re written off now.

"We have been losing to England and Australia for too long now — it’s been happening on a regular basis. To go into a game with a different mindset and game plan might not be the worst thing.

“Wales always perform best as an underdog anyway and being written off by others could end up being a good thing.”

Wales, semi-finalists in 2011, must do battle with hosts England and Australia in a group containing three of the world's top five ranked teams — with only the top two progressing to the knockout stage.

Thomas said the absence of Halfpenny, arguably the most reliable goalkicker in international rugby, may result in a different approach from coach Warren Gatland which could see Wales "less reliant on the boot".

"I think the injuries could mean Wales end up playing a lot more rugby," Thomas said.

"Leigh Halfpenny will be a big, big miss. Wales rely on him to keep them in games. Not only do other sides fear Leigh but he's a massive confidence booster for Wales too.

"To not have him is massive but it might mean we are not as reliant on the boot as in the past. We do have players who can play rugby."

Thomas believes the versatile Liam Williams, who has fitness concerns of his own having broken a foot in June, can step up and shine in Halfpenny's absence.

"When you lose two key players it brings about an opportunity for others which is massive. Liam has been so unlucky in the last few years," he said.

"He's had to play second fiddle and be moved to the wing but he'll be coming in now as first choice.

"He'll be desperate to show what he can do. He has been an outstanding player for Wales and this time around it looks like the jersey will be his."

Huge blow for Wales as Halfpenny ruled out of World Cup

September 8, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 


Wales suffered a huge Rugby World Cup blow on Monday when fullback Leigh Halfpenny, whose superb goalkicking has been a key part of their success in recent years, was ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury.

Rugby Union - Wales v Italy - Dove Men Test - Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales - 5/9/15Wales' Leigh Halfpenny scores a penaltyAction Images via Reuters / Rebecca NadenLivepic

Halfpenny sustained anterior cruciate ligament damage in his country's final warm-up win over Italy on Saturday and will play no part in the Sept.18-Oct. 31 showpiece.

"Leigh will undergo further examination and assessment before further details are announced," the Welsh Rugby Union said in a short statement.

According to an unsourced report in French newspaper L'Equipe, the WRU have informed Halfpenny's club side Toulon that the player will be out for at least six months and will not be available until March.

Wales, drawn in the toughest of the four groups alongside England and Australia, open their World Cup campaign against Uruguay in Cardiff on Sept. 20.

Halfpenny, who has amassed 508 points in 62 tests for Wales and is renowned for his accuracy at goal, as well as being a fearless tackler and fine counter-attacker, pulled up holding his knee and was carried off late on against Italy in Cardiff.

Part of the feared Wales backline that won back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2012 and 2013, the British and Irish Lion has suffered a number of injuries in recent seasons.

He missed last summer's tour of South Africa after being ruled out for four months following a shoulder injury.

The start of his Toulon career was delayed by a persistent groin problem and a nasty concussion sustained in March against Italy in the Six Nations prompted some to question his tackling approach.

First-choice centre Jonathan Davies also suffered a knee ligament injury in March which ruled him out of the World Cup while Wales could also be without scrumhalf Rhys Webb who appeared to sustain a serious ankle injury against Italy.

Webb, who has established himself as the first choice number nine for Wales after a string of influential performances, was carried off on a stretcher during the first half after his left leg became trapped at the back of a ruck.

Wales have yet to provide a medical update on the player.

Wales coach Warren Gatland must now shuffle his troops with Liam Williams likely to move from the wing to fullback to take Halfpenny's place, although the Scarlets man has fitness concerns of his own having not played since suffering a broken foot in June.

Flyhalf Dan Biggar is set to take over the goalkicking duties.

Wales braced for ‘massive blow’ – Gatland

September 6, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 


Warren Gatland admitted on Saturday that it would be a "massive blow" for Wales to lose Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb on the eve of the World Cup.


Gatland watched in horror as two of his key players were carried off on stretchers in an unconvincing 23-19 win over Italy in Cardiff on Saturday.

Webb suffered suspected serious ligament damage to his ankle in the first half after falling awkwardly at a ruck. And Halfpenny's right knee, already heavily strapped, then gave way as he moved to collect a kick 11 minutes from time.

Gatland and Wales now face an anxious wait on the result of scans, having already lost centre Jonathan Davies at the start of the summer, before considering any replacements.

Gatland said: "It's not great. You have got to feel for them if they are ruled out of the World Cup. It would be a massive blow for them and disappointing for us.

"It's just one of those things in rugby. Players want to play but unfortunately they can pick up injuries. Look at the second Test in South Africa last summer (when Wales came within seconds of beating the Springboks), neither of those players were involved.

"So if they are ruled out we will have to put that behind us, work with the players we've got and build towards the next game.

"Liam Williams has taken a full part in training and potentially over the next 48 hours, when we get the results of the scans, we may have to sit down and look at picking replacements."

Williams is a ready-made replacement for Halfpenny after recovering from a foot problem. Gareth Anscombe, nursing an Achilles problem, or James Hook could also be considered for call-ups.

Mike Phillips is the natural choice to replace Webb, particularly given the lack of experience between remaining scrum-halves Gareth Davies and Lloyd Williams.

Sam Warburton revealed the squad had been left shaken by the potential loss of two key players.

He said: "It would be gutting if they are ruled out after putting in so much effort. There's no getting away from the fact they are two huge players for us.

"I'm going to be optimistic and hope that if it's just a grade one or two tear to the ligaments that is something you can come back from in three weeks, even though they feel worse at the time.

"You do really worry for them when you see guys who are your mates go down in real pain. It hits the rest of the players as well.

"I really hope they are ok. We're all keeping our fingers crossed for the results of the scans on Monday."

Italy also suffered a double injury blow of their own to centres Luca Morisi and Gonzalo Garcia.

Morisi is out of the World Cup after tearing knee ligaments, while Garcia is also a serious doubt with ankle damage.

Captain Sergio Parisse said: "It's terrible for anyone to be injured at this stage, so close to the World Cup. We lost a young player last week (Angelo Esposito) and we have two more worries now. But this is rugby and can give strength to the rest of the team."

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