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The British and Irish Lions suffered their second defeat of the tour on Tuesday as they lost 23-22 to the Highlanders in Dunedin.
There has been something special brewing in Dunedin these past few days, and not just the amber stuff which seems to have been enjoyed immensely by supporters of both the British and Irish Lions and the Highlanders.
It was a sense that this tour has finally started, as though it needed a touch of that famous southern hospitality to really get things going after wet and dreary nights in Whangarei, Auckland and Christchurch. It snowed during the day here, but the freezing temperatures just made the welcome seem that much warmer.
And that feeling continued when the Highlanders walked out on to this unforgivingly hard pitch tonight to the tune of a lone piper. They like to do things differently down here, and the presentation of the ceremonial claymore sword to tour skipper Sam Warburton was a nice touch.
The previous three Lions’ tour matches have been memorable in their own way, and this will be remembered for the pace of the game, the skill level from players from both teams, but especially the Highlanders, the pace and power of one Waisake Naholo, and a remarkable victory by the home side.
They did it the hard way, and had to survive a late penalty attempt from Elliot Daly from nearly 60m, plus one last desperate attack from the Lions, but they held on. Their relief and pleasure at the final whistle was palpable and few did more to get them over the line than Naholo.
The All Black, in his own quiet way, expressed his confidence during the week that he was up for this one, and he proved it with his blockbusting run to the try-line for the Highlanders which finished with an unfortunate head injury to Lions lock Courtney Lawes.
He proved once again that he is a devastating attacking weapon and he is looming as a very big factor in the first test at Eden Park a week on Saturday. He is immensely strong and very quick, two things which given him an immediate advantage when he has the ball and when he doesn’t.
The Lions never really got to grips with him, or with centre and fellow All Black Malakai Fekitoa.
Fekitoa hasn’t been included in Steve Hansen’s squad, so he had a point to prove here and he did it beautifully; playing within a system and making life extremely difficult for the opposition defence.
Warren Gatland reckons there isn’t much difference between New Zealand Super Rugby teams and the All Blacks. Many would disagree with that, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the Lions’ so-called mid-weekers are nowhere as good as those who will start the first test.
The Lions should have killed this game off at 22-13. They had the momentum, the ball and the territory, but you can’t switch off for a minute against this mob, who, incredibly, were missing nine of their front-line players to the All Blacks or Maori.
Liam Coltman’s converted try changed everything, with a penalty from cult hero Marty Banks getting them across the line.
If any match proved the value of a stadium with a roof on it in this part of the world it was this one. Some of the handling was outrageously good. There were mistakes, yes, but the dry conditions allowed the Highlanders to have a go as they promised to do, and they didn’t disappoint.
Highlanders 23 – 22 British & Irish Lions
Penalty: Lima Sopoaga 4‘Substitution: Marty Banks (In) / Malakai Fekitoa (Out) 11’Substitution: Malakai Fekitoa (In) / Marty Banks (Out) 15’Try: Waisake Naholo 25’Conversion: Lima Sopoaga 26’Penalty: Lima Sopoaga 49‘Substitution: Marty Banks (In) / Lima Sopoaga (Out) 54’Substitution: Josh Dickson (In) / Alex Ainley (Out) 54’Substitution: James Lentjes (In) / Dillon Hunt (Out) 58’Substitution: Aki Seiuli (In) / Dan Lienert-Brown (Out) 58’Try: Liam Coltman 59’Conversion: Marty Banks 61‘Substitution: Greg Pleasants-Tate (In) / Liam Coltman (Out) 67’Substitution: Patrick Osborne (In) / Tevita Li (Out) 67’Substitution: Siua Halanukonuka (In) / Siate Tokolahi (Out) 67’Penalty: Marty Banks 73‘Substitution: Josh Renton (In) / Kayne Hammington (Out) 74’
British & Irish Lions
Penalty: Dan Biggar 15‘Substitution: Ken Owens (In) / Rory Best (Out) 24’Substitution: Alun Wyn Jones (In) / Courtney Lawes (Out) 26’Substitution: Rory Best (In) / Ken Owens (Out) 28’Try: Jonathan Joseph 29’Conversion: Dan Biggar 30’Try: Tommy Seymour 42′Substitution: Greig Laidlaw (In) / Rhys Webb (Out) 47’Substitution: Ken Owens (In) / Rory Best (Out) 48’Substitution: Dan Cole (In) / Kyle Sinckler (Out) 48′Try: Sam Warburton 52’Conversion: Dan Biggar 53‘Substitution: Jack McGrath (In) / Joe Marler (Out) 54’Substitution: Elliot Daly (In) / Jared Payne (Out) 62’Substitution: Justin Tipuric (In) / Sam Warburton (Out) 67’Substitution: Owen Farrell (In) / Dan Biggar (Out) 67
Highlanders: 15 Richard Buckman, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock (c), 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Jackson Hemopo, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Jimmy Lentjes, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Patrick Osborne
British and Irish Lions: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Rory Best, 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Alun Wyn Jones, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Elliot Daly
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gauzère, Mathieu Raynal
TMO: Marius Jonkerhieu Raynal
TMO: Marius Jonker