Michael Owen stepped up to the plate in New Plymouth as the Lions added a second tour victory, against Taranaki at the Yarrow Stadium. Owen was the pick of Sir Clive Woodward's pride in a game that swung to and for before the Lions closed off a second win on five days.
It was a struggle at times for the Lions who lacked a great deal of cohesion, especially in the first half. However, with Owen in wonderful form and Gethin Jenkins coming off the bench to shore up the scrum, the tourists survived and move on to Hamilton with their unbeaten record intact.
The game was relatively quiet for the opening minutes until, that is, Danny Grewcock and Paul Tito were warned after fifteen minutes for a scuffle on halfway. The Lions lock was fortunate to escape a yellow card after being caught on camera giving the flame-haired Taranaki forward a good seeing to. Tito was then penalised for going offside at a ruck and Charlie Hodgson popped over the ensuing penalty to break the deadlock after nineteen minutes.
Taranaki continued to pose few threats to the Lions, but equally the tourists rarely threatened the hosts' line. Their ball retention was poor and their execution sloppy. Having said that, the one shining light was Wales's No.8, Michael Owen, whose quick hands twice enabled the Lions to counter attack from deep. With Lawrence Dallaglio ruled out of the tour, Owen, has a realistic chance of winning a place in the side for the first Test against the All Blacks in Christchurch on June 25th, and he enhanced his chance with a series of driving runs and decent tackles.
Taranaki's best opportunity came in the 28th minute when the Lions were caught short on the left flank but with the line at his mercy, Sailosi Tagicakibau fumbled the final pass. However, four minutes later Chris Cusiter fired a pass over his own dead ball line and from the next scrum, Taranaki moved infield and Chris Masoe picked up and dived in for Sam Young to convert. Referee Deaker refused to send off, or at least yellow card Scott Breman when he stopped Cusiter redeeming himself two minutes later when the Scottish scrum half tapped a penalty two metres out and was taken around the neck by the Taranaki lock. Hodgson, however, converted the penalty and the Lions were at least back to within a point.
Three minutes after the interval the Lions were in front. A turnover in midfield, a clearance kick from Geordan Murphy and some excellent vision from Cusiter gave Martin Corry the chance to slide in at the corner for a try that Hodgson failed to improve. With John Hayes struggling at scrum, once again, the Lions introduced Wales loose head Gethin Jenkins on the tight head. However, when Donnacha O'Callaghan overstepped the mark a minute after Corry's try, Taranaki should have been level. Sadly for them, Young pushed his penalty wide of its target.
The game turned on its head ninety seconds later when Taranaki hooker Andrew Hore was binned for not rolling away at a ruck. As Hore trudged off to the sin-bin, so Hodgson provided the points with his third penalty of the evening and as far as the result was concerned, that was that.
Shane Horgan finished the move of the match fifteen minutes from time as the Lions injected some pace into the game and Hodgson's conversion rounded off a fine performance from the Sale Sharks outside half. However, it was Owen who took the honours as the clear man of the match when he threw out a wonderful long pass to send in Geordan Murphy for a try that gave Hodgson yet another opportunity to add the extras.
The Lions were far from finished. A cross field kick from Hodgson fell into the grateful arms of Shane Horgan and when the Irishman found countryman Murphy on his inside, the Leicester Tiger did the rest. Brendon Watt bagged a consolation for Taranaki in stoppage time but by then the job had been done and done relatively well.
British and Irish Lions: G Murphy; S Horgan, W Greenwood, O Smith, D Hickie; C Hodgson, C Cusiter (G Cooper 75mins); G Rowntree, A Titterell (S Byrne 66mins), J Hayes (G Jenkins 48mins), D O'Callaghan, D Grewcock, M Corry (capt), L Moody, M Owen
Taranaki: S Ireland (B Watt 16mins); S Tagicakibau (M Harvey 40mins), M Stewart, L Mafi, C Woods; S Young, C Fevre (J King 64mins); T Penn (H Mitchell 69mins), A Hore, G Slater, P Tito (capt), S Breman (J Eaton 64mins), J Willis, C Masoe (R Bryant 64mins), T Soqeta
British & Irish Lions 36 Taranaki 14
Taranaki Tries: Masoe, Watt
Conversions: Young (2)
Nearly 40 players were involved in the first Wales Under 18 training session of the season. WRU National Performance Manager Gethin Watts is excited at the potential shown by the group and expects the Regional Under 18 Championship to hone their skills even further.