The result will read 23-22 and will have the perception that it was a tight close match; on the contrary the truth could be nowhere near. The Highlanders duped the British and Irish Lions into playing super rugby. A game of high risk and reward, In my last article I alluded to the Lions knowing their enemy and playing applying their own game plan, somehow they failed to build on from the Crusaders game. So many turnovers, penalties and too maany points left to rue. Why did a team made up of some of the finest rugby nations on the planet lose to a team depleted of regulars?
In Baltic like conditions inside the stadium the match started with Lima Sopoaga, opening the scoring with a penalty in the fifth minute when Courtney Lawes was caught offside. The Lions would soon draw level with Dan Biggar converting a penalty, The Highlanders game plan was all about stretching the Lions one way, then the other and getting the ball into the hands of both Malakai Fekitoa and Waisake Naholo, who both had points to prove for different reasons. Fekitoa, unwanted by the All Blacks, was bristling attitude without over doing it. He ran hard but with awareness and accuracy to ensure there were no wild offloads or poor decisions.As for his tackling – that was world class. Naholo, with his first touch, managed to go from a standing start with four Lions in front of him, to charging down the wing. With his second he nearly dived in at the corner and then got his just reward with his third when he popped up at first receiver and smashed over – sadly collecting Courtney Lawes’ head along the way in what was a nasty blow for the big Englishman. The Lions would respond once again which should be seen as encouraging as they scored their third try of the tour through Jonathan Joseph with a wonderful individual effort after taking a neat pass from Dan Biggar. It was all level at the end of the first half. The Lions would come out all guns blazing in the second half ensuring a purple patch for the men in red as they added more tries , Tommy Seymour read one of Lima Sopoaga’s kick-passes to perfection to score . Tour Captain Sam Warburton showed sheer bloody-mindedness to crash over from close range. With the score at 22-13 it was the Lions game to control and put the game to bed, however they let the Highlanders back into the game with indiscipline conceding penalties to which Highlanders replacement flyhalf Marty Banks took full advantage with his tactical kicking finding touch five metres out. This would lead to the Highlanders scoring from a driving maul from their lineout through Coltman. Banks would add the extras and the lead was reduced to two points. Somehow the Highlanders managed to totally dominate the Lions Scrum and gain a penalty with six minutes to go which Banks gleefully converted making the score 23-22. The Lions would get one last reprieve when Elliot Daly was given the task of converting a penalty from 60m out unfortunately the Hail Mary kick was agonisingly two metres short and with that, the game was over.
Both teams put on a fantastic show as the game was played at such a ridiculous tempo; take your eyes off it and you’d miss a piece of ingenious handling, a sidestep or a moment of sheer desperation. However the Lions deviated from their own game plan and were way too undisciplined. 19 turnovers and 12 penalties are not good enough to win an international game. Dan Biggar did not impose himself as he let his scrumhalf Rhys Webb dictate the pace of game. The scrum should be a key weapon for the Lions. This is the best of Britain and Ireland after all. Four countries who pride themselves on scrummaging. As it turned out, it was the Highlanders who dominated the set piece. Missed opportunities such as the final pass from prop Kyle Sinckler to fullback Jared Payne when the try was on. The angle option taken by Rhys Webb when he had a man in support were far too many. Basic game management was lacking as well as failing to adapt to the southern hemisphere referee, let’s hope this will not be a talking point come the first test. Time is running out for the Lions too feed properly on their meals before the great battle of the First Test.