British and Irish Lions vs Highlanders: Second defeat on tour of New Zealand highlights gulf in Lions' teams

Highlanders 23 British and Irish Lions 22: A late Marty Banks penalty condemns the Lions to a second defeat in the space of a week

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The Independent Sport

A second defeat for the British and Irish Lions in six days has highlighted a gulf between their first and second sides after the Highlanders clinched a thrilling 23-22 victory on Tuesday night, inflicting the second loss on Warren Gatland’s side of their tour of New Zealand.

The Lions finally found a way to cross the try line as Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour and Sam Warburton all scored, but they could not rid themselves of the Otago side on the scoreboard and in the end, the sides were split by a single point and a difference of just two metres, such was the length that Elliot Daly’s late penalty missed by.

Given the Lions side that held the Crusaders to just three points in Saturday’s 12-3 victory were ferocious in defence, the two tries conceded in Dunedin is beginning to show why few of the players on show here will feature in the Test side next week.

Lions video diary Day 13, from Dunedin

Neither the Highlanders nor the Lions could say they were at full strength, the home side missing nine players through a combination of international call-ups and injury that robbed them of both Ben and Aaron Smith, while the tourists made 15 changes to their starting line-up.

Yet it would be one of the Highlanders’ released All Blacks, fly-half Lima Sopoaga, who opened the scoring with a penalty in the fifth minute when Courtney Lawes was caught offside. The Lions would soon draw level, but only after they twice thought they had scored when firstly Seymour went for the line and then Rhys Webb tried to jump over the ruck to touch down. Referee Angus Gardner asked his television match official, Marius Jonker, to check both groundings, and while Seymour’s proved inconclusive, Webb had clearly lost control of the second.

The Lions had a penalty advantage regardless for full-back Richard Bateman straying offside, and Dan Biggar, back from a head injury suffered in the Blues defeat, levelled the scores.

Sopoaga would receive another chance to put the home side ahead when CJ Stander – playing in his third consecutive match of the tour due to the back injury that has sidelined Ross Moriarty – was penalised for holding on, though the stand-off watched his kick float wide to the left. The Highlanders were building pressure though, with the overlooked All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa and his international teammate Waisake Naholo beginning to make a serious impression on the Lions, and it soon told.

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The Lions were beaten by one point (Getty)

It came from a Lions error, when a stolen lineout resulted in Webb knocking forward into his own player. Turning down the kick at goal, blindside flanker Gareth Evans went quickly, and when Sopoaga whipped the ball right to Naholo, he took aim straight at the line, bashing Lawes out of his way en route to touching down next to the posts. Robbie Henshaw complained of a deliberate block by lock Alex Ainley, but the TMO decided he wouldn’t have got there anyway, and worse followed after Sopoaga converted the try as Lawes was taken from the field with a serious head injury.

Gatland will have been pleased with the response as the Lions scored what was their third try of the tour just four minutes later. After Henshaw won a penalty for holding on, the Lions kicked to touch on the right inside the 22, and when they spread left, centre Jonathan Joseph straightened to crash over out wide, with Biggar beautifully adding the extras.

With both sides proving rather equal, the players headed for the tunnel with the scores level, but this time it would be the Lions that exploded out of the blocks first after the restart. When Sopoaga attempted a cross-field kick intended for Fekitoa that landed on their own 10m line, a charging Seymour caught the ball above him and went the distance to score, though Biggar missed the conversion. It would prove costly.

In the opening match of the tour, young England prop Kyle Sinckler showed his naivety when he took a quick-tap and immediately conceded a penalty. He displayed that again in the 49th minute as his slightly-late shoulder charge on Liam Coltman gave Sopoaga the chance to reduce the lead to a two-point game, which he duly took.

Having already scored as many tries tonight as they had done the entire tour so far, the Lions were beginning to find their finishing prowess in the dry conditions under the Forsyth Barr Stadium roof, and it was captain Sam Warburton who looked to put them on the path to a third victory when he smartly collected the ball from the base of the ruck about seven metres out and extended his arms to touch down and score between the posts, giving Biggar an easy conversion to make it 22-13 in the Lions’ favour.

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It was another disappointing result for the Lions (Getty)

But back came the Highlanders, and with Sopoaga now off the field, it was Marty Banks who was doing the damage with his tactical kicking game. His touch-finder off a penalty when replacement lock Alun Wyn Jones – on for the injured Lawes – was caught offside led to the Highlanders’ pack forming a perfect driving maul from the 5m lineout to send Coltman over, his just desserts with Sinckler watching on from the sidelines.

Banks’ conversion again reduced the lead to two points and Owen Farrell, stepping in for Biggar, failed to land a penalty kick moments later. The Highlanders would go on to punish the tourists as after they folded the Lions scrum in half to win a penalty, Banks split the uprights to put the Highlanders ahead with six minutes left on the clock.

The Lions would have one final chance to snatch it when they were awarded a penalty in their own half, giving England back Daly and his behemoth of a left boot a shot at glory. Crucially though, Gardner checked where the mark was, marched Daly back two metres, and his long-range effort fell short. Two metres short.

Teams

Highlanders: Richard Buckman; Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa, Teohorangi Walden, Tevita Li (Patrick Osborne, 68); Lima Sopoaga (Marty Banks, 55), Kayne Hammington (Josh Renton, 75); Daniel Lienert-Brown (Aki Seuli, 60), Liam Coltman (Greg Peasants-Tate, 68), Siate Tokolahi (Siosiua Halanukonuka, 68); Alex Ainley (Josh Dickson, 55), Jackson Hemopo; Gareth Evans, Dillon Hunt (James Lentjes, 60), Luke Whitelock.

British and Irish Lions: Jared Payne (Elliot Daly, 63); Jack Nowell, Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw, Tommy Seymour; Dan Biggar (Owen Farrell, 68), Rhys Webb (Grieg Laidlaw, 48); Joe Marler (Jack McxGrath, 55), Rory Best (Ken Owens, 49), Kyle Sinckler (Dan Cole, 49); Courtney Lawes (Alun Wyn Jones, 26), Iain Henderson; James Haskell, Sam Warburton (Justin Tipuric, 68), CJ Stander.

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