For the second time in the space of a week, a 73rd minute score denied the Lions a midweek win on their tour of New Zealand. Last week, it was Ihaia West’s stunning try under the posts, here it was a penalty from Marty Banks that completed the Highlanders’ comeback from a nine-point deficit midway through the second half in Dunedin.
The tourists will rue their missed opportunities however, Dan Biggar missed a difficult touchline conversion, Owen Farrell missed a penalty, seconds after arriving on the pitch as a replacement, and a long range Elliot Daly effort narrowly fell short after referee Angus Gardner prevented him from stealing a few crucial yards when setting up the kick.
The knowledge that the win was within their grasp will be some consolation once the disappointment fades and although it meant there was no reward for scoring more than one try for the first time on tour, three in total, it will encourage them that they outscored the Highlanders in that regard.
However, the discipline, much improved on Saturday against the Crusaders, was back to the bad ways of last Wednesday’s defeat to the Blues, giving away 12 penalties to the hosts’ seven, and the inability to satisfy Gardner at the scrum and breakdown will worry the management, although two of the tests will be refereed by northern hemisphere officials.
The Highlanders are fifth in Super Rugby this season, fourth among the New Zealand teams, and started well, with wing Waisake Naholo looking ominous. Like last week’s star performer Sonny Bill Williams, the Lions can expect to see him again, in an All Black jersey, before the tour is over.
Last ditch defending kept Naholo in check for 25 minutes, while both sides exchanged penalties, but he eventually proved too much to handle, powering through tacklers to score under the posts, leaving Courtney Lawes unconscious in his wake, after his head struck Naholo’s elbow.
The suspected concussion will be a concern, Lawes was on excellent form and looking like a test starter with his all-round contribution to the tour.
The Lions struck back just four minutes later. With the test centre pairing still uncertain, eyes were on Robbie Henshaw and Jonathan Joseph as a possible combination. Henshaw was solid throughout and his physical style makes him a likely Gatland favourite. Joseph did not have a flawless match, but sparkled at key moments in attack and scored the Lions’ first try after good offloads from CJ Stander and Dan Biggar, outpacing the covering defenders to score from outside the 22. Biggar’s conversion meant scores were level at half time.
The Lions began the second half in spectacular fashion. Highlanders fly half Lima Sopoaga attempted a trademark All Black crossfield kick-pass but Tommy Seymour was alive to it, the Scottish wing gambling and winning by rushing up to intercept and run through unopposed to score the Lions’ second try.
After a Sopoaga penalty kept the Highlanders in touch, two good runs from Joseph got the Lions close to the line before Sam Warburton scooped up the ball from an Iain Henderson carry, benefited from some canny blocking by Alun Wyn Jones and powered over the line with a defender on his back.
The conversion gave the Lions a nine-point lead and with 27 minutes remaining, raised their hopes of running away with the game.
It was not to be. The Highlanders’ pack kept the pressure on and just six minutes later their pack scored a pushover try from a lineout, Liam Coltman the beneficiary. As the half went on, the Lions’ goal kicks went astray and the Highlanders waited for their opportunity, which came from a scrum penalty wide on the right. After the game, the Lions’ coaches and players would question the referee’s decision. Replacement Highlanders loosehead Aki Seiuli certainly seemed to be boring in, but the home scrum was on the front foot and Gardner did not hesitate. Nor did Banks, his kick denying the Lions two wins in a row, despite an encouraging performance.
The visitors have improved on every outing so far on this tour, but their next stop is their most daunting yet, against the Maori All Blacks, who have not lost to an international opponent since playing England 14 years ago, and are usually a tougher test than many international teams. Warren Gatland’s line-up should give a close indication of his expected XV for the first test, bar one or two, such as Warburton, who played today.