Highlanders replacement Marty Banks slotted a 74th-minute penalty to secure a thrilling 23-22 win over the British & Irish Lions in Dunedin on Tuesday. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
If the Lions' impressive win over the Crusaders this past weekend was a big step forward for the tourists, then they took two steps back against a Highlanders side that was missing nine first-choice players.
The Lions midweek team did have a late opportunity to snatch the win, when Elliot Daly lined up a long-distance penalty, but his 55m effort fell just short. With time up, the Lions then won a lineout deep inside Highlanders territory and sent the ball wide, only for Jonathan Joseph to knock on.
It’s been an enthralling start to the Lions’ tour, with their early struggles having seemingly been put behind them after they produced a defensive masterclass to overcome the Crusaders last Saturday.
However, with every member of the 41-man squad having started one of the first three games, coach Warren Gatland again named a completely overhauled starting lineup to face the Highlanders.
It meant the Lions’ approach was always going to be somewhat of a lottery, but it was evident from the outset that they weren’t going to be afraid to throw the ball around as they went in search of the tries that have largely eluded them so far on tour.
That ambition was matched by the Highlanders early on, with the hosts playing with pace and width, and which initially saw them charge into a 10-3 lead after Waisake Naholo produced a typically powerful finish to score in the 26th minute.
However, the Lions responded almost immediately with a well-worked try of their own as Dan Biggar laid off a lovely pass to Joseph, who ghosted through the defence to score.
It was a crucial try that drew the scores level at 10-10 heading into half-time, while in a potential 14-point swing just after the break, Lions winger Tommy Seymour beautifully anticipated a Lima Sopoaga cross-kick to snatch the ball out of the air and dart 30m to score.
Sopoaga did manage to reduce the deficit to just a couple of points when he slotted his second penalty soon after, but the contest then appeared to have swung decisively in favour of the Lions when captain Sam Warburton burst over to score under the posts in the 54th minute.
Yet this fascinating contest continued to ebb and flow, with Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman dotting down from a powerful driving lineout on the hour mark, while a missed penalty from Lions replacement Owen Farrell meant it remained a two-point ball game heading into the final 10 minutes.
However, with the Highlanders utterly dominating at scrum-time during the latter stages, it was from this set piece that they won a penalty, with Banks stepping up to slot the match-winning three-pointer that secured yet another historic result for a New Zealand Super Rugby side.
British & Irish Lions – Tries: Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour, Sam Warburton. Conversions: Dan Biggar (2). Penalty: Biggar.
Highlanders – Tries: Waisake Naholo, Liam Coltman. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga, Marty Banks. Penalties: Sopoaga (2), Marty Banks.
British & Irish Lions – 15 Jared Payne, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Sam Warburton (c), 6 James Haskell, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Rory Best, 1 Joe Marler.
Subs: 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.
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.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Sio Halanukonuka, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Jimmy Lentjes, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Patrick Osborne.
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images