A late charge from the Highlanders saw them overhaul the Lions 23-22 under the roof in Dunedin on Tuesday night.
The Lions again fielded a completely different starting XV than played in Christchurch, with tour skipper Sam Warburton getting another chance to prove his match fitness ahead of the Tests. Given how well Sean O’Brien played in Christchurch, he more than anyone needed to put in a big performance.
The Highlanders had the services of three All Blacks squad members (wing Waisake Naholo, 5/8 Lima Sopoaga, and hooker Liam Coltman) released from their training camp. Other than those three and Malakai Fekitoa the Lions wouldn’t have know too much about the rest of the Highlanders.
No pre-match haka for the Highlanders, but if anything captain Luke Whitelock presenting his opposite Sam Warburton with a replica claymore looked even more odd.
The opening minutes of the game were played at a frenetic pace and Highlanders centre Malakai Fekitoa probably bombed a try by passing to the man running the inside line rather than the outside. There was consolation, though, as 5/8 Lima Sopoaga opened the scoring with a penalty.
The Lions came roaring back, wing Tommy Seymour being brought down just short then halfback Rhys Webb dropping the ball over the line trying to go over rather than around the resulting pileup. It was all under penalty advantage so flyhalf Dan Biggar levelled the scores after 15 minutes.
Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo scored the first try of the night at 24 minutes, powering over from close range. Lions lock Courtney Lawes was dazed attempting to tackle Naholo, left the field, and didn’t return. Sopoaga’s conversion made it 10-3.
The Lions replied with a gem of a try to centre Jonathan Joseph after a stymied lineout drive, evading Sopoaga’s tackle to score. Biggar added the extras to level the scores again.
Half time: 10-10
The Lions had the better of the third quarter, scoring soon after the resumption through Seymour who snatched an attempted kick-pass by Sopoaga and had no-one in front of him. Biggar’s shot at goal missed.
Sopoaga redeemed himself somewhat by adding another three from the tee to make the score 15-13 with just under 30 minutes to play, but an error from him lead to Warburton scoring from an attacking scrum shortly after.
The Highlanders then turned down two shots at goal in favour of setting up lineout drives, hooker Liam Coleman scoring from the second as the Lions counter-drive fell apart. Replacement 5/8 Marty Banks reduced the deficit to 20-22.
Replacements Owen Farrell and Elliott Daly both had chances to make the game safer, Daly’s a monster 57-metre effort that only just fell short, but neither was successful. Instead it was Marty Banks who nailed the winner from a scrum penalty after 73 minutes, his side holding on for the win.
For Highlanders: tries Naholo, Coltman. Con Sopoaga (2). Pen Sopoaga (3), Banks.
For Lions: tries Joseph, Seymour, Warburton. Con Biggar (2). Pen Biggar.
The Lions move on to Rotorua where they’ll play the Maori All Blacks on Saturday.