LONDON, England (Reuters) - England’s 2003 World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward has saluted the air of “invincibility” Maro Itoje brings to the Lions pack after the lock delivered a standout performance in the 24-21 defeat of New Zealand in Saturday’s second test.
The 22-year-old justified Warren Gatland’s decision to start him in Wellington, delivering a combative performance that checked the All Blacks’ attacking intent and helped drive the Lions forward to level the three-match series at 1-1.
“He was immense from start to finish and the feeling of invincibility a young tyro like the England lock brings to proceedings should not be underestimated,” Woodward wrote in the Mail on Sunday of a player who did not start the first test.
”It wouldn’t occur to him for a second that New Zealand were unbeatable. He doesn’t really understand the concept of defeat and long may that last.
“No wonder the Lions fans were chanting his name football-style afterwards. There were shades of (Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi in their worship of the man.”
While many pundits bemoaned a high penalty count for the visitors, former Lion Austin Healey said it was an inevitable price to pay for taking the match to New Zealand, who had Sonny Bill Williams sent off for a shoulder charge after 25 minutes.
”Conceding 13 penalties is not in the manual of how to win a test match,“ Healey wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. ”But the point was the Lions were prepared to play right on the edge rather than let the All Blacks march all over them.
“Of course you would like the penalty count to come down but if anything, the Lions need to ramp up the aggression even further.”
Former England flanker Lawrence Dallaglio said the victory was based on an astonishing display of “heart and nerve”, and saluted Gatland for keeping faith with creative duo Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell even as the clock ticked down.
“‘Finishers’ has become a popular term in rugby but sometimes it pays to stick with your starters -- the reason why you go with them from kick-off, after all, is because they are your best players,” he wrote in the Sunday Times.
Most commentators predicted a “Blacklash” in next week’s decisive test at Eden Park, although former Ireland wing Shane Horgan believes the series may hinge on how New Zealand react to the pressure of facing a possible series defeat.
“(Accuracy and composure) will be in short supply in New Zealand’s media and fans this week; the Lions will pray this will transmit to their team,” he wrote in the Sunday Times.
Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by John O'Brien