The Highlanders edged the British and Irish Lions 23-22 in a thrilling encounter under the roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin after Marty Banks’ late penalty gave them a one-point victory.
Elliot Daly missed a 57-metre penalty with minutes remaining, as the home team held on for a famous win in Otago, and with nine starters missing from their match day 23.
The first-half was level at 10 apiece after tries by Waisake Naholo and Jonathan Joseph.
The Highlanders roared back from a nine-point second-half deficit to increase the pressure on Warren Gatland and his team.
Second-half tries from Tommy Seymour and Sam Warburton saw the Lions take a 13-22 lead going into the final 25 minutes.
But a powerful lineout drive saw the Otago side reduce the gap to two points after Liam Coltman’s 6oth-minute try.
Owen Farrell missed a late penalty before Daly’s long range effort, but with five minutes remaining, and after the Highlanders obliterated another Lions’ scrum, Banks settled the game.
Lima Sopoaga traded early penalties with Dan Biggar before Naholo’s try gave the hosts a 10-3 lead. The winger had a superb game, along with Malakai Fekitoa, breaking tackles and collecting high balls.
The outside backs caused all manner of problems for the tourists, who struggled to keep up with the Highlanders’ pace and intensity.
It was only some good defending and poor finishing that kept the game within a score.
Fekitoa made the initial break, rounding Jonathan Joseph. The ball was recycled quickly, spread wide to the left and after some pick-and-drives, Naholo, at first receiver, bounced two tacklers and scores under the posts.
Courtney Lawes, CJ Stander and Jared Payne could not stop the big man. Lawes left the field after taking a blow to the head, trying to tackle Naholo.
News of Stuart Hogg returning home with an injury only added to Gatland’s woes.
Coming into this game, the Lions had scored two tries in three games, but in dry conditions under the roof, they found some attacking inspiration.
Joseph and Biggar led the way for the tourists, who were finding holes in the home team’s defence. CJ Stander and Rhys Webb were causing havoc in the tight phases.
Webb was the architect for all the attacking flair, breaking around the fringes as the Lions came back into the contest.
On the half-hour, the Lions finally scored. They sent the ball wide from the first-phase ball at the scrum, and the Englishman crossed the whitewash after a jinking run.
It all came from Biggar’s run to the gain-line and offload to Joseph, who sped through the inside defenders to score. Biggar’s conversion tied the game at 10-all.
The try galvanised the tourists and they had two more opportunities to take the lead, but some poor handling and superb work at the breakdown by Dillon Hunt and Gareth Evans kept them out.
The tourists came out after the break and scored immediately. The Highlanders had decided to put boot to ball, kicking several cross-kicks as they looked to use their outside backs.
But, it backfired when Seymour collected Sopoaga’s misjudged kick-pass and raced away to give his team the lead for the first time in the match.
Biggar could not convert from out wide. Moments later, Sopoaga kicked his second penalty to reduce the score to 13-15.
From the restart, the Lions took advantage of some sloppy work by their hosts, winning a scrum after a clearance kick was called back for a foot on the dead ball line.
The Lions spread the ball to both sides of the field. Joseph went close, but the tourists continued to pick-and-drive. After two multiphase plays, the skipper crashed over from close range.
Biggar added the extras from under the posts to extend his team’s lead to 13-22.
Jared Payne lost the ball forwards from the restart, putting his team under unnecessary pressure. The Lions repelled the first onslaught after some good work at the breakdown, but the home team came again.
Another attack was halted thanks to Stander. Greig Laidlaw, on for Webb, cleared, but the Highlanders won another penalty and kicked for the corner.
From the lineout, the Highlanders went to their driving maul. The Lions’ forwards stopped the initial drive, but not the next as Coltman crashed over.
Banks had taken over kicking duties after Sopoaga’s departure, and he did not miss, bringing the scores to within two.
By now, the Highlanders’ pack had the upper hand, obliterating a couple scrums as they gained the momentum. Somehow, the Lions survived.
They marched down the field and were awarded a penalty. On came Farrell for Biggar, who left the field limping, but the English first five eight missed from a very kickable position.
On 73 minutes, the game changed and all the momentum that was with the tourists shifted to the home team. Another powerful scrum, deep inside the Lions’ half, resulted in a penalty.
A scuffle broke out – as always happens in these situations – and Banks stepped up, making no mistake from near the touchline, giving his team a slender one-point lead as the clock ticked down.
Four minutes’ later, Angus Gardner gave Gatland’s men a lifeline, awarding them a penalty just inside their half. Up stepped Daly.
However, upon a look on the big screen, Gardner pulled the kick back a few metres to the anger of Warburton and his players.
It was a good call from the Australian referee, who had an excellent game, letting both teams play.
His interpretation of the breakdown was superb, allowing both sides to compete, which made for the free-flowing match.
Warburton, channelling his inner Chris Robshaw, decided to continue with the shot at goal, when kicking to the corner was the right option.
Daly launched a huge kick, but it sailed wide – just.
The Lions still had time for one more attack, but after going wide from a lineout, Joseph knocked the ball forward in a tackle, the ball was gathered and booted into the stands.
Cue scenes and bedlam, as the home supporters and their team, revelled in this fine victory over their illustrious opponents.
Final Score: Highlanders 23 (10) British and Irish Lions 22 (10)
Tries – Naholo, Coltman
Pen – Sopoaga (2), Banks
Con – Sopoaga, Banks
British and Irish Lions
Tries – Joseph, Seymour, Warburton
Pen – Biggar
Con – Biggar (2)
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant 1: Pascal Gauzere (France)
Assistant 2: Mathieu Raynal (France)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
15 Richard Buckman, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Kayne Hammington, 8 Luke Whitelock (captain), 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Jackson Hemopo, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 James Lentjes, 21 Josh Renton, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Patrick Osborne.
British & Irish Lions
15 Jared Payne, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Christiaan Stander, 7 Sam Warburton (captain), 6 James Haskell, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Rory Best, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Dan Cole, 19 Alun Wyn Jones, 20 Justin Tipuric, 21 Greig Laidlaw, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Elliot Daly
British & Irish Lions
15 Jared Payne – Ulster, Ireland, 14 Jack Nowell – Exeter Chiefs, England, 13 Jonathan Joseph – Bath Rugby, England, 12 Robbie Henshaw – Leinster, Ireland, 11 Tommy Seymour – Glasgow Warriors, Scotland, 10 Dan Biggar – Ospreys, Wales, 9 Rhys Webb – Ospreys, Wales, 1 Joe Marler – Harlequins, England, 2 Rory Best – Ulster, Ireland, 3 Kyle Sinckler – Harlequins, England, 4 Courtney Lawes – Northampton Saints, England, 5 Iain Henderson – Ulster, Ireland, 6 James Haskell – Wasps, England, 7 Sam Warburton (capt) – Cardiff Blues, Wales,
8 CJ Stander – Munster, Ireland,
Replacements: 16 Ken Owens – Scarlets, Wales, 17 Jack McGrath – Leinster, Ireland, 18 Dan Cole – Leicester Tigers, England, 19 Alun Wyn Jones – Ospreys, Wales, 20 Justin Tipuric – Ospreys, Wales, 21 Greig Laidlaw – Gloucester Rugby, Scotland, 22 Owen Farrell – Saracens, England, 23 Elliot Daly – Wasps, England