FORSYTH-BARR STADIUM, Dunedin — The British & Irish Lions are now two from four after a breathless game under the roof of the Forysth-Barr Stadium in which the Highlanders put on a brilliant performance to down the tourists.
It was baltic inside the stadium; scrums leaked vapour on the perfect surface with lungs burning at the freezing south island air. But the two teams put on a fantastic show. 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.
The Highlanders, void of nine of their team, were magnificent and threw plenty of Otago spirit at the Lions. The tourists, no doubt with injured colleague Stuart Hogg in their minds, played well in spells with some players sending timely reminders to Warren Gatland that they have Test aspirations. Here are the key talking points from this pulsating spectacle here in Dunedin.
Sam Warburton shows admirable courage
Having missed the previous two games of the tour with an ankle injury, Warburton managed 68 minutes in Dunedin. Earlier in the week he admitted his Test place was at risk owing to his lack of game time — Sean O’Brien is also in fine form — and was brutally honest about his own situation.
After a quiet first half, which only really offered one turnover, he played better in the second as he helped halt a Highlanders attack and scored a try. Question marks still hover over his form and Test chances. The team for the Maori All Blacks match on Saturday will be fascinating. If Warburton is in the 23 then he has a chance of starting against New Zealand on June 24. Miss out, and it is O’Brien’s shirt to lose.
Attacking game continues to be work in progress
The Lions scored three tries, taking their tour tally to five, and showed some real attacking intent. Jonathan Joseph scored a wonderful individual effort after taking a neat pass from Dan Biggar while Tommy Seymour read one of Lima Sopoaga’s kick-passes to perfection to score their second. The third was a lesson in sheer bloody-mindedness from Warburton to crash over.
But they still left some chances on the field with a wonderful break from Kyle Sinckler ending in a dropped ball after Jared Payne failed to take his inside ball.
Dan Biggar played well at fly-half and lived up to his pre-match message that he was going to do all he could to remind Gatland there was a third No. 10 on the tour with him admitting Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell were ahead of him.
Jared Payne assured on fullback audition
With Hogg out for the rest of the tour, this was Payne’s Test audition. In the first half he was solid under the high ball but dropped the pass from Sinckler when he had a chance to stretch his legs for the Highlanders’ try line. In the second 40, he dropped one restart and was visibly annoyed, throwing the ball into the turf.
It was a solid display but with Elliot Daly coming on at fullback for the last 17 minutes and Leigh Halfpenny in the mix to start on Saturday, Gatland is not short of options for the No. 15 shirt.
It all depends on what he wants from his man at the back. If he wants a broken field runner, then Daly or Anthony Watson have a great shot at starting against the All Blacks. If he wants a sweeper at the back, then it is between Payne or Halfpenny.
Discipline remains a problem
The Lions conceded two scrum penalties and were warned by referee Angus Gardner over their dalliances with the offside line. In total they conceded 12 penalties to the Highlanders’ seven and this was why they ended up losing the match.
It prevented them finding momentum and allowed the Highlanders back into the game when they had a nine-point lead. This has to be addressed before the Test series.