A 14-point comeback by the Hurricanes provided a thrilling finale to the midweek portion of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
The Wellington-based team capitalised on a yellow card for Lions lock Iain Henderson, scoring two converted tries while the Ulsterman was in the sin bin, to race back from 17-31 down and make for a tense finish that culminated with a missed drop goal attempt by Lions fly-half Dan Biggar.
Henderson was yellow-carded for lifting the legs of Hurricanes full back Jordie Barrett, the brother of All Black fly-half Beauden, and Barrett played a key hand in the turnaround, with the creation of one, and conversion of both the comeback scores.
It was a back and forth match, in which second rows Henderson, indiscipline aside, and Courtney Lawes stood out for the tourists, while Tommy Seymour scored two tries. The first came after Biggar opened the scoring with a penalty. Scrum half Greg Laidlaw intercepted a wayward Hurricanes pass, deep in Lions’ territory and, although he lacked the pace to go all the way himself, made it well past halfway, before offloading to Seymour, who raced under the posts.
With a conversion and another Biggar penalty, the Lions were 0-13 up, but the Hurricanes, the second-best New Zealand side in Super Rugby this season, struck back with flanker Callum Gibbins, who burrowed over at close range.
With Leigh Halfpenny on and George North moved to centre to cover for the injured Robbie Henshaw, the Welsh pair combined to extend the Lions’ lead before half time. A high ball from Biggar slipped through Halfpenny’s arms to Henderson, whose offload put North away under the posts.
Leading 7-23 at the interval, the tourists would have hoped for a comfortable second half, but instead the hosts struck right back through Ngani Laumape, who scored in the corner after a brilliant angle by Julian Savea cut the Lions’ defence wide open. The conversion and a penalty followed for Barrett, but with scrum half Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi in the sin bin for a high tackle, the Lions took advantage, first through another Biggar penalty, then Seymour’s second try, put away in the corner by North and Halfpenny.
Even with the conversion missed, the Lions now led by 14 points, but Henderson’s yellow card opened a door for the Hurricanes and they ploughed through it, Barrett throwing a huge miss pass to replacement Wes Goosen to score. Three minutes later flanker Vaea Fifita dived over the top to add another, right under the posts, and Barrett’s easy conversion meant the scores were level.
The last 10 minutes were deadlocked, the final kick of the game was Biggar’s long-range drop goal effort, which wobbled well under the crossbar.
In many ways, the game was a fitting end to the midweek series, being neither an overwhelming success or failure for the Lions. It was an entertaining end though, in the best tradition of Lions midweek games. Whether the likes of Lawes, Henderson, or even North did enough to crack the test 22 remains to be seen.
Coach Warren Gatland failed to use replacements Kristian Dacey, Allan Dell, Tomas Francis and Cory Hill, while Finn Russell only saw the field for a few minutes as temporary cover while Biggar received a head injury assessment. With the possibility that some of the starters will be in contention for the test side on Saturday, the decision not to use any of the ‘Geography Six’, was a strange one.
Afterwards, Gatland admitted that he had not wanted to cheapen the Lions shirt by bringing on players who were only added because of their proximity, but it raised the question of why he called them up at all, drawing such heavy criticism, only not to use them. It was an oddly indecisive moment for a coach who, for better or worse, is usually the opposite.