Another setback for the British and Irish Lions saw the Northern Hemisphere side lose 23-22 to the Highlanders. In what was a highly entertaining game, with more expansive rugby on show from the touring side, they still failed to convert chances to points on too many occasions.
Two butchered try scoring opportunities in the first-half showed a lack of clinical edge from the Lions, which if are repeated against the All Blacks, the Northern Hemisphere side might as well forget about one test victory, let alone a series win.
Away from these missed chances, the Lions can take away positives from the defeat. They attacked with more cutting edge and aggression; Dan Biggar at 10 had a really solid game, and was pivotal in Jonathan Joseph’s first-half try.
Although the Lions matched the intensity, and speed at which the Highlanders were playing at, the touring side still ran out of steam on the 70-minute mark. In what was a bruising and exhausting game, it seemed the Highlanders were able to deal with the physicality and intensity in better fashion, a factor which ultimately got the Super Rugby side over the line.
Following the loss of Stuart Hogg to an elbow to the face in the Crusaders game, Warren Gatland’s decision to play Jared Payne at 15 seemed a wrong one. Payne was caught out of position on occasion, and it was only because of a good scramble defence and sloppy ball handling from the Highlanders that they did not score more tries; this could be the Irishman’s last game at 15.
With such a scramble defence, and with often a lack of speed at the breakdown from the Lions; it once again led to poor discipline from the touring side; 12 penalties were conceded, a count far too high in any test game.
In the engine room at second-row, Gatland will be concerned by the knock taken to Courtney Lawes. The Englishman was having a fine tour up until his injury in the first-half, and Lions fans will be hoping that the Saints man has not done any serious damage to rule him out of the tests.
Lawes’ partner, Iain Henderson, did not have a strong enough game to stake a claim on the No.5 jersey. Often late to the breakdown, and a poor ball carrier will once again raise the question of the Irishman’s inclusion over Joe Launchbury on the tour.
However, there is genuine reason for encouragement to take from the game. When considering that perhaps only three-four starters of the Highlanders game will start the first test, the Lions can feel positive heading into the Māori All Blacks game with what will be a stronger team. Skipper, Sam Warburton, also had a fine game to put his hand up over question marks with the Welshman potentially missing out in the back row.
The amount of individual errors with basic ball handling mistakes will anger the Lions coaches, particularly attacking coach, Rob Howley; but, there was generally more cohesion, and more of a flow to the Lions play which should give greater confidence to the team heading into the remaining fixtures on tour.
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