Midweek team fall to second tour defeat after Highlanders strike late to sink Lions
Highlanders 23 Lions 22
This is quickly becoming a tour of two teams. After the Test team got the show on the road with a win in Christchurch, the dirt-trackers let the side down in Dunedin.
Some of them put their hands up to join the main event, but the majority are in for a long few weeks of mid-week action.
Again, they were pipped by a late score and again they were given an opportunity to win the game and couldn't execute. Marty Banks' penalty was the difference between the teams.
Iain Henderson was one of the few to shine, while England’s Elliot Daly impressed off the bench. Robbie Henshaw was tidy and, while he looked off the pace at times, Sam Warburton began to look like his old self.
Warren Gatland has major problems in his back-three and must be tempted to replace Stuart Hogg in the squad with someone in form. Keith Earls and Simon Zebo will want to make sure their phones remain on in Japan.
Tommy Seymour, despite his try, was awful, Jack Nowell not much better and Jared Payne was a mixed-bag. Jonathan Joseph was another whose score should not hide some horror moments. CJ Stander struggled, while James Haskell and Greig Laidlaw simply aren’t good enough to be here.
The home side were well worth their win in front of a raucous 26,920-strong crowd beneath the Forsyth Barr Stadium roof.
The Highlanders began with purpose and spread the ball wide to All Black winger Waisake Naholo who made life awkward for Tommy Seymour from the off.
The Scotland winger was bailed out by a brilliant Jared Payne tackle on the Fijian winger, before Malakai Fekitoa spurned a three-on-one and the home side had to make do with a Lima Sopoaga penalty to get them off the mark.
The Lions attempted to hit back and big carries from Robbie Henshaw, Iain Henderson and Kyle Sinckler got them going forward but Dan Biggar chose to feed Courtney Lawes when the pass out the back looked the better option. Off slower ball, they were turned over.
Rhys Webb broke free soon after and found Nowell but the England wing was caught by Kayne Hammington and the scrum-half undid the good work with a bad pass that allowed the momentum pass.
The Highlanders lost Fekitoa to a head injury and his replacement Marty Banks’ first act was to hand the Lions position in the ’22 with a poor kick which almost resulted in a try for Seymour who was stopped short of the line and Webb whose greedy decision to dive for the line saw him knock on.
Referee Angus Gardiner was playing advantage and Dan Biggar obliged to level the score as Fekitoa returned.
Sopoaga missed a chance to restore his side’s lead after a loose off-load from Henderson put his side under pressure and CJ Stander was penalised for holding on after a carry.
The Ireland back row was enduring a difficult night. He was left for dead by Fekitoa and a sharp Payne intervention from Teihorangi Walden’s clever chip bailed him out.
Rory Best won a crucial turnover on his own line as the Lions soaked up more pressure but it told in the end during a minute to forget for Jonathan Joseph who was beaten by Fekitoa and then run over by Gareth Evans before Naholo powered past Payne and Lawes to score.
Lawes left the field with a head injury as Sopoaga converted and the pressure kept on coming as Tevita Li threatened to break free only to be halted by the despairing Webb and Robbie Henshaw before Payne got over the ball and forced a relieving penalty.
The tourists hit back with just their third tour try, marching their maul forward before using Stander in midfield and he found Dan Biggar who did well to put Joseph through a gap and the England centre scored.
Biggar converted and grew into the game, putting Kyle Sinckler through a big gap and the pacy prop’s pass to Payne should have stuck.
Back the Highlanders came and another excellent Walden chip and neat hands from Evans almost got Li away only for Alun-Wyn Jones to get enough on the winger to slow him down for Nowell to scramble back and Li’s pass was forward.
The Lions got the perfect start to the second-half as Sopoaga made a rare mistake, his cross-kick invited Seymour to beat Fekitoa to the ball and the Scot waltzed in untouched.
Biggar missed his conversion and poor play from Webb handed the Highlanders an opportunity to strike back but they were penalised for obstruction in midfield and when the Lions tried to hit back their momentum was checked for a similar offence as Jones ran into his own man.
More loose play by Sopoaga put his team under huge pressure as the out-half threw a wild pass behind Fekitoa, he tried to feed Naholo and the winger stepped over the end-goal line.
The tourists took advantage, patiently probing through their centres and trying the blunt force of Henderson and Stander before captain Warburton forced his way over under the posts.
Biggar converted, but Payne dropped the restart to invite the locals back into the game.
They were under pressure and their discipline was slipping; Henderson’s powerful counter-ruck bailed them out once but their offside line was overly aggressive and when Banks kicked to the corner the home side drove over with hooker Liam Coltman touching down.
Banks converted to narrow the gap to two points and when Walden spilled the kick-off the Lions had a chance to hit back, but Dan Cole slipped his bind and handed the Highlanders an easy exit.
With Elliot Daly on for Payne and stepping in at first-receiver, the Lions put their best sequence together and earned a penalty; but Owen Farrell missed it with his first touch.
It was to prove costly as Aki Seuili monstered Cole in the scrum and Banks knocked over the resultant penalty to nudge his side in front.
Daly missed an outrageous 57m attempt to put the Lions back in front when the tourists might have been better off finding field position.
The Lions got one more chance, but Joseph knocked on Farrell’s pass. They’re two from two and it’s where they deserve to be.
Over to the Test team to rescue things again against the Maori in Rotorua on Saturday.
HIGHLANDERS – R Buckman; W Naholo, M Fekitoa (M Banks 12-17 HIA), T Walden, T Li (P Osborne 68); L Sopoaga (M Banks 55), K Hammington (J Renton 76); D Lienert-Brown (A Seuila ), L Coltman (G Pleasants-Tate ), S Tokolahi (S Halanukonuka ); A Ainley (J Dickson 55), J Hemopo; G Evans, D Hunt, L Whitelock.
LIONS – J Payne (E Daly 63); J Nowell, J Joseph, R Henshaw, T Seymour; D Biggar (O Farrell 68), R Webb (G Laidlaw 48); J Marler (J McGrath 55), R Best (K Owens 25-29 blood, 49), K Sinckler (D Cole 49); C Lawes (AW Jones HIA 27), I Henderson; J Haskell, S Warburton (J Tipuric 68), CJ Stander.
Referee: A Gardiner (Australia)