At least the British & Irish Lions now know what their first-choice side looks like. A second midweek defeat advanced few individual claims for the first Test on Saturday week and the Lions once again contrived to lose a game they should have won from 22-13 up with 20 minutes left. If you leave the back door ajar in these parts, the chances are someone will make you pay.
A depleted Highlanders team, as the Blues did last week, also underlined the uncomfortable truth this Lions squad are splitting into halves: those who are rising to the challenge of playing in the toughest of rugby destinations and those whose skills and pace are being found out. That does not mean the Test XV cannot still make life awkward for the All Blacks but, as Warren Gatland acknowledged, this was a step backwards at a psychologically important point of the tour.
The Lions will also move on to Rotorua to face the Maori All Blacks in their last Saturday fixture before the Test series facing set-piece questions almost as big as the albatrosses on the glorious Otago peninsula. If they enjoyed a bit of refereeing fortune in Christchurch last Saturday, they were less fortunate here as Angus Gardner gave two second-half scrum penalties against Dan Cole at crucial junctures which went a long way towards shaping the game.
The second, kicked by the replacement Marty Banks with six minutes left, was not open to debate but the Lions felt the first was a clear error. “I think the first one’s a penalty to us, the loosehead has gone down,” Gatland said. “There’s no doubt they’ve got some ascendancy in the second scrum penalty but I thought with the first one we’d forced an error.”
There was also the wider issue of discipline, particularly when a southern hemisphere official has the whistle. Gatland’s tongue-in-cheek insistence the issue was instantly solvable – “Possibly, if we can get all the Frenchmen in charge of the games” – may not go down too well with South Africa’s Jaco Peyper, who is set to referee the Maori game and the first Test, but did highlight the enduring inconsistency of interpretation that, for better or worse, still influences Lions games.
The odd debatable scrum penalty, even so, is hardly enough for the Lions to claim floodlit robbery. They did not play with either sufficient control or accuracy on a chilly evening inside the Highlanders’ enclosed igloo of a stadium and were lucky the quicksilver Ben and Aaron Smith were not involved. Their two liveliest players, Courtney Lawes and Rhys Webb, had to go off injured and Jared Payne at full-back continues to look like a player operating below optimum fitness.
Given Dunedin’s proud Scottish heritage it was also a night perfectly set up for a tartan Lion to shine. Sadly, it did not work out that way. In the game’s earliest moments Waisake Naholo left a flat-footed Tommy Seymour clutching at thin air out wide and a fine tackle from Payne was required to prevent an immediate score. Up at the other end, Seymour was also held inches short of the line and then failed to gather a teasing crossfield punt from Dan Biggar that had the defence scrambling.
The Highlanders looked both quicker and slicker for much of the opening half and it was no surprise when the classy Naholo weaved away from the attempted tackles of Lawes and Payne to score after 26 minutes. Lawes took a heavy blow to the side of the head en route and may struggle to feature again before the first Test at the earliest.
There was plenty of Lions relief when Jonathan Joseph sliced through to score the kind of eye-catching try in which he specialises. Biggar’s fine conversion was a further bonus and despite a storming individual break from Kyle Sinckler that might have gone further had Payne not dropped the subsequent pass, the touring side were slightly fortunate to go in at half-time level at 10-10.
It was a similarly mixed story after the interval. Lima Sopoaga’s cross-kick within three minutes of the restart was snaffled by a grateful Seymour who raced in from 40 metres out and the Lions displayed more vigour in all areas. When the captain, Sam Warburton, after a distinctly quiet first-half, stretched out to score by the posts there looked only one winner until a 60th minute try from the hooker Liam Coltman sparked a dramatic home revival.
The tourists had already suffered a pre-match blow following confirmation that Scotland’s Stuart Hogg will play no further part in the tour after suffering a facial fracture against the Crusaders. No replacement will be summoned unless the tour party sustains further long-term casualties.
Hogg was inadvertently caught by an elbow from his team-mate Conor Murray and was advised his eyesight might be at risk if he received another knock in the same place. It reduces the Scottish contingent on tour to two players and with Payne short of form, in effect leaves the Lions Test full-back berth between Leigh Halfpenny and Anthony Watson, with Gatland regarding Liam Williams primarily as a wing. Aside from Elliot Daly and CJ Stander not many other current midweekers are banging hard on the door and the first Test may arrive too soon for Warburton. This rollercoaster of a tour continues to lurch from one emotional extreme to the other.
Highlanders Buckman; Naholo, Fekitoa, Walden, Li (Osborne, 69); Sopoaga (Banks, 55), Hammington (Renton, 75); Lienert-Brown (Seiuli, 59), Coltman (Pleasants-Tate, 68), Tokolahi (Halanukonuka, 68), Ainley (Dickson, 55), Hemopo, Evans, Hunt (Lentjes, 59), L Whitelock (capt).
Tries Nadolo, Coltman. Cons Sopoaga 2. Pens Sopoaga 2, Banks.
British & Irish Lions Payne (Daly, 63); Nowell, Joseph, Henshaw, Seymour; Biggar (Farrell, 68), Webb (Laidlaw, 48); Marler (McGrath, 55), Best (Owens, 49), Sinckler (Cole, 49), Lawes (Jones, 27), Henderson, Haskell, Warburton (capt; Tipuric, 68), Stander.
Tries Joseph, Seymour, Warburton. Cons Biggar 2. Pen Biggar.
Referee A Gardner (Aus). Attendance 29,620.
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