The British and Irish Lions played the Highlanders in their second mid week game of this years series today, which gathered a crowd of 26,600. This was a big game for Gatland, with a win being a must for moralle with the All Blacks fixtures looming closer.
With Dan Biggar kicking off the fixture, the Highlanders were quick to get on the attack with Waisake Naholo putting the pressure on; forcing the Lions to test their defence from the start.
It was the hosts who were to open the scoring with a penalty from Lima Sopaga resulting from the premeditated pressure added on the visitors straight from kick off. They continued to press on the Lions, with Fekitoa throwing away a good chance out wide. It was back and forth within the first ten minutes or so, and the Highlanders made sure the Lions knew they were up for it today, as they spent no time in getting out of their own half when the Lions added the pressure.
It was the Lions who got the next close chance, with Seymour getting over the line, but the TMO ruling it inconclusive, bringing it back for a Lions penalty which Biggar gladly tucked away to level the scores.
It was much of the same in the minutes to come, with the Highlanders opting to go more for a kicking approach. Although, the next score of the game was in fact a Highlanders try, with penalty converter Waisake Naholo getting over the line for the first try of the game; Sopoaga making sure he gets all the points with the conversion.
Although, in the play, lock Courtney Lawes was taken off with a head injury from a collision with Naholo. This gave the chance for last match’s captain Jones to get some game time. Soon after the Highlanders try, the Lions reponded with quality Joseph try, which Biggar gladly added to with the conversion. This sent the teams in at half time level at 10-10.
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Straight out of the changing rooms, the Lions were ready for the kicking tactics; Seymour being the one top foresee a kick pass from Sopoaga which allowed him to snatch the ball and make his way over the line, putting the Lions ahead 15-10 as Biggar missed the conversion. It was Sopoaga who continued to cause the Lions trouble, with his pace and size giving him the opportunity to get within 5 meters; taking Seymour with him, leading to a penalty to the home side who calmly converted the penalty.
Whatever Gatland and returning captain Sam Warburton said at half time, it certainly worked, with the Lions not letting go of the lead easily. They responded to the penalty with another try, this time Warburton who put the ball under the posts to give Biggar the opportunity to get another kick of the day.
Although, it seemed as though the visitors came of the throttle after this, allowing mistakes to be made and the Highlanders gladly exploited them; forcing the Lions to go on the defence with just over 20 minutes to go.
If this was a Gatland tactic, he was punished soon after, as another penalty led to Liam Coltman closing the gap for the home side on the 60th’ before the conversion was also put away, leaving the score at 20-22 to the Lions.
At this point it was about holding on to the win for the Lions, which seemed to be going well, until Marty Banks put away a kick in the 72nd minute to put the hosts a point ahead; giving the Lions everything still to do. It was substitute Elliot Daly who was to get the next proper chance for the BIL as Stander got them a penalty from around 60 yards. Daly missed the kick, leading to the Lions giving it their all to get the win, but it was not to be as Jonathan Joseph missed the chance to get over in the last move of the game.
This was to be the last chance for the Lions to get another win, but it ended 23-22 to the Highlanders. Gatland will not be happy to see another win slip their grasp, but he will have to look forward if he wants to get up to All Blacks beating standards.