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Dublin: 5 °C Wednesday 11 December, 2019

Gatland's Lions slip to second tour defeat in thrilling contest with Highlanders

The tourists scored three tries but they produced another big error count in Dunedin.

Highlanders 23

Lions 22

Murray Kinsella reports from Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin

THE DRAMA AT the death was fitting, as the Lions won a late penalty and opted for a long-range Elliot Daly shot at goal, only for Angus Gardner to march him back another few metres at the insistence of the Highlanders.

Daly hammered the shot from around 58 metres out but it came up short. In the dying seconds, the Lions won another penalty and thundered at the 2015 Super Rugby champions, but Jonathan Joseph spilled the ball and the Kiwis recorded a famous win.

Waisake Naholo celebrates scoring their first try with teammates Source: Photosport/Joe Allison/INPHO

Warren Gatland’s side now have a record of four games played, two wins and two defeats in New Zealand and this performance – though it featured brilliant moments – was a backwards step after the momentum-boosting win over the Crusaders on Saturday.

It was a thrilling, absorbing affair in Dunedin, as the Lions finally found the try-scoring habit and showed signs of more cutting edge in attack, scoring three tries, happily hitting the wide channels and occasionally offloading.

Dan Biggar was excellent at out-half before limping off in the second half, while Iain Henderson was muscular in the second row and Kyle Sinckler showed his ability once again at tighthead.

For all the positive intent, the Lions produced another high error count as their handling let them down and their discipline took a big backwards step after improving against the Crusaders last time out, with 12 penalties conceded far too high against a team as good as the Highlanders.

The Dunedin franchise were exciting to watch, with Waisake Naholo doing real damage with ball in hand, and the attacking kicking of Lima Sopoaga and Teihoranghi Walden asking the kind of questions the All Blacks will ask of the Lions.

Tevita Li Source: Photosport/Joe Allison/INPHO

Gatland’s men managed that well at times – even scoring a try from a botched Sopoaga kick pass – but they will be frustrated to have let up the pressure on the Highlanders at key times through their own errors.

Captain Sam Warburton, wing Tommy Seymour and centre Joseph all dotted down for tries, though a couple of misses off the tee – most notably from replacement Owen Farrell late on – proved costly.

In the end, it was a party for Marty as replacement out-half Marty Banks kicked the winning points of the game in the 74th minute.

Though rain fell outside, conditions under the roof in Forsyth Barr Stadium were perfect and the Highlanders immediately signalled their intent as the always-dangerous Naholo broke past Seymour down the right wing.

The Lions recovered by Henshaw was tackled in the process of kicking and the Kiwis grabbed possession. Sopoaga’s superb diagonal grubber kick found Naholo and only a brilliant covering tackle from Jared Payne halted the All Blacks wing, before Malakai Fekitoa butchered an overlap over on the left touchline.

Lima Sopoaga kicks at goal Source: Photosport/Joe Allison/INPHO

The Lions had strayed offside, however, and Sopoaga popped over three points off the tee.

Rhys Webb made a sharp break to the right of a maul near halfway soon after, but after he drew in Tevita Li and hit Jack Nowell, the Lions wing was hauled down from behind by an excellent Kane Hammington tackle.

On the next phase, with a Lions overlap out to the left, Webb oddly attempted to hit one of the retreating Highlanders with his pass, rather than shifting the ball to space.

The Lions were denied a 16th-minute try by the TMO, with Seymour coming up just short after excellent carries by Henshaw and Courtney Lawes. But Richard Buckman had been offside for the Landers and Biggar levelled the scores.

Sopoaga missed a penalty from close to the right touchline after Stander was turned over, but the Lions had trouble with their handling as both Payne and Seymour knocked on as they attempted to gather kicks.

After Stander was again turned over, the Highlander had a close-range lineout, only for Rory Best to produce an important turnover, but the Super Rugby side came back two minutes later as energetic flanker Gareth Evans quick-tapped a penalty near the 22.

Waisake Naholo celebrates scoring their first try Source: Photosport/Joe Allison/INPHO

He ended up barrelling through Joseph wide on the left – minutes after Buckman has boshed the Lions 13 – before captain Luke Whitelock went close on the next carry. The Lions were stretched to breaking point and it was the dynamic Naholo who finished, powering through Payne and Lawes – aided by Alex Ainley’s clever block – and under the posts for a converted try.

Lawes was concussed in his tackle, his head colliding nastily with Naholo, and Alun Wyn Jones replaced him.

Li broke out of the Highlanders’ half with the 30-minute mark approaching, but an excellent track back from Henshaw, showing major pace, halted him and the Lions scrambled for the turnover.

They then produced their best attack of the game to level. After the maul did some damage on the right, Biggar hit Stander in midfield and the number eight offloaded back to his 10 superbly.

Biggar danced past Naholo and hit Joseph in space, with the England centre’s pace tacking him beyond Sopoaga to score a try Biggar converted superbly from a difficult position on the left.

Jonathan Joseph scores his sides first try Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There was still time for the Lions to mess up another attacking opportunity, with Payne failing to hold Kyle Sinckler’s pass after the impressive tighthead made a scintillating break in midfield.

The 10-10 scoreline didn’t last for long in the second half, with Seymour picking off Sopoaga’s attempted crossfield kick to Naholo after just three minutes, aggressively attacking the ball in the air to win it and then sprinting clear from 40 metres out.

Biggar couldn’t convert and the Highlanders drew back to within two points in the 50th minute, the previously excellent Sinckler giving away a needless penalty for tackling off the ball just before he was replaced, Sopoaga slotting the three points.

But the Highlanders out-half had another moment to forget when he threw a wild pass behind Fekitoa, forcing the centre behind his tryline, where he offloaded to Naholo, whose foot hit the dead ball line as he attempted to kick clear.

The Lions had a five-metre scrum platform and after a multi-phase passage that featured several excellent carries from Henderson and Joseph, captain Sam Warburton picked and drove through Hammington to the left of a ruck to score under the posts, Biggar converting.

Sam Warburton scores a try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With a 22-13 lead, the Lions would have felt they could kick on but their discipline helped keep the Highlanders in the game, as Gatland’s side strayed offside repeatedly.

The Kiwis had two close-range lineouts in a row, with Henderson’s brilliant counter rucking forcing a turnover on the first attack, but when the Highlanders got a second shot their maul powered through the Lions for a try from All Blacks hooker Liam Coltman.

Replacement out-half Marty Banks converted to bring the scoreline back to 22-20 and the Lions missed a chance to extend their lead in the 69th minute when Owen Farrell – just on the pitch after Biggar limped off – missed a kickable penalty, wide to the left.

Banks, so reliable off the tee, didn’t make the same mistake in the 74th minute when his forward pack utterly destroyed the Lions scrum, happily rubbing their faces in the penalty decision, ala the Crusaders last time around.

Banks, 10 metres in from the right-hand touchline, slotted the penalty to push the Highlanders 23-22 in front with six minutes remaining.

A Stander turnover saw the Blues come offside in the 78th minute and replacement Elliot Daly opted for a shot at goal from 55 metres out, referee Angus Gardner then marching him back another three metres to the actual point of the penalty.

Daly thumped the ball but it dropped short and the Lions slipped to their second defeat of this tour.

Highlanders scorers:

Tries: Waisake Naholo, Liam Coltman

Conversions: Liam Sopoaga [1 from 1], Marty Banks [1 from 1]

Penalties: Lima Sopoaga [2 from 3], Marty Banks [1 from 1]

Lions scorers:

Tries: Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour, Sam Warburton

Conversions: Dan Biggar [2 from 3]

Penalties: Dan Biggar [1 from 1], Owen Farrell [0 from 1], Elliot Daly [0 from 1]

HIGHLANDERS: Richard Buckman; Waisake Naholo, Malakai Fekitoa (HIA – Marty Banks ’12 to ’16), Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Li (Patrick Osborne ’68); Lima Sopoaga (Marty Banks ’55), Kane Hammington (Josh Renton ’75); Dan Lienert-Brown (Aki Seiuli ’60), Liam Coltman (Greg Pleasants-Tate ’68), Siate Tokolahi (Siosuia Halanukonuka ’68); Alex Ainley (Josh Dickson ’56), Jackson Hemopo; Gareth Evans, Dillon Hunt (Jimmy Lentjes ’60), Luke Whitelock (captain).

LIONS: Jared Payne (Elliot Daly ’63); Jack Nowell, Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw, Tommy Seymour; Dan Biggar (Owen Farrell ’68), Rhys Webb (Greig Laidlaw ’48); Joe Marler (Jack McGrath ’56), Rory Best (blood – Ken Owens ’25 to ’29, permanent ’49), Kyle Sinckler (Dan Cole ’49); Courtney Lawes (Alun Wyn Jones ’27), Iain Henderson; James Haskell, Sam Warburton (captain) (Justin Tipuric ’69), CJ Stander.

Referee: Angus Gardner [ARU].

Attendance: 26,920.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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