Lions slip to late Highlanders loss

Replacement Marty Banks kicked a late penalty to give the Highlanders a dramatic victory over The British & Irish Lions in an enthralling fourth clash of the Tour in Dunedin.

Replacement Marty Banks kicked a late penalty to give the Highlanders a dramatic victory over The British & Irish Lions in an enthralling fourth clash of the Tour in Dunedin.

Under the roof of the Forsyth Barr Stadium, in a team containing Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar at half back with Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric on the bench, the Lions attack clicked into gear on Tuesday night with three tries courtesy of Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour and skipper Sam Warburton.

But the Highlanders crossed for two tries of their own thanks to two of their All Blacks, Waisake Naholo in the first half and Liam Coltman in the second before Banks’ nerveless late effort sealed a 23-22 win.

Elliot Daly’s late long-range penalty then fell short and while the Lions pressed hard in the final moments, the home side held on for a famous victory leaving the Lions to head to Rotorua to prepare for the Maori All Blacks.

After an impressive opening ceremony that saw the Highlanders present Tour captain Warburton with a claymore sword, it was the hosts who came out swinging.

Twice Naholo got free down the right and although Malakai Fekitoa wasted an overlap, referee Angus Gardner was playing advantage and Lima Sopoaga kicked the home side into an early 3-0 lead.

The Lions did not take long to respond though, Rhys Webb darting clear down the right from a maul while Iain Henderson and Kyle Sinckler were showing up well in attack in their second starts of the Tour.

And the tourists thought they had their first try of the game soon after but, after checking with the TMO, it was ruled that Seymour was just short before Webb then knocked on in the act of scoring.

Biggar – whose first outing on Tour was ended prematurely against the Blues by injury – was pulling the strings well and his penalty levelled the scores after an intense, if error-strewn, first quarter.

The Highlanders were next to strike however, Gareth Evans went close down the left and when the ball was recycled it was that man Naholo whose raw pace and power put him under the posts for the game’s first try.

Sopoaga added the simple extras, while the Lions lost Courtney Lawes to injury as he tried in vain to scrag Naholo – Alun Wyn Jones on in his place.

The home side continued to threaten, their clever kicking game causing problems while Tevita Li was only denied a second score by a superb covering tackle from Webb.

The Lions needed a response as the half hour approached and it was Joseph who provided it, the England centre backing himself and dotting down in the left corner after smart hands from Biggar released him.

The Welsh fly half added the tough extras to make it 10-10 and that was how it stayed, Sinckler’s searing line break coming to nothing, as the two evenly-matched sides went into the sheds all square.

Sopoaga’s attacking kicking had turned Lions defenders in the opening period but after the break it proved their undoing.

Seymour collected yet another cross-field kick and with no one in front of him, the Scot cantered clear for his first try on Tour and the Lions second on the night.

Biggar missed with the tough extras but the Lions kept coming – Webb again darting clear with his final involvement before Greig Laidlaw was introduced in his place.

Ken Owens and Dan Cole were not far behind the Scot off the bench and while Sopoaga trimmed the lead with a penalty, the Lions struck again in the 53rd minute.

From a five-metre scrum the Lions battered away at the line – Henderson and Joseph both cutting lovely lines to get them close and in the end it was Warburton who picked and went through the middle to dot down under the posts.

Biggar’s simple conversion made it 22-13 to the tourists but, after showing their attacking qualities before the hour mark, the Lions then had to front up in defence.

A Henderson turnover repelled the Highlanders the first time but after the Lions went offside shortly after, the pressure finally told and Coltman went over at the back of a rolling maul.

Replacement Banks – on for Sopoaga – added the extras to make it only a two-point Lions lead as the game entered the last quarter of an hour.

Daly was on at full back for Jared Payne, the England man showing some nice touches in attack but Owen Farrell – on for Biggar – then pulled a penalty wide with his first touch and it stayed 22-20.

And when the Highlanders scrum won a penalty with seven minutes left it was Banks who held his nerve to put them back in front.

And in the face of late Lions pressure, the Highlanders held on for a win – replicating the famous efforts of the Otago province who had downed the Lions five times before through the years.