Marty Banks slotted a 74th minute penalty to give the Otago Highlanders a dramatic 23-22 victory over the British and Irish Lions, handing the tourists their second defeat of the tour in a Dunedin thriller on Tuesday.
The Lions scored tries through Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour and captain Sam Warburton but, having led 22-13 in the 53rd minute, were overhauled by a passionate Highlanders side in front of a raucous crowd at the Otago Regional Stadium.
All Blacks Waisake Naholo and Liam Coltman crossed for the home side but it was replacement flyhalf Banks’s kick from the tee after the Highlanders pack had destroyed the Lions at a scrum in their own 22 that proved decisive.
The Lions now head to Rotorua to face the Maori All Blacks in their fifth game of the 10-match tour on Saturday with Gatland expected to pick his strongest side with an eye on the first test against the All Blacks on June 24.
“We scored a couple of tries which was a positive,” Warburton said.
“I’m sure for the neutral, for the Highlanders fans, it was a great game to watch but for us, there’s a lot of learning to do. It was a good tight match but if we could go back in time, I think there’s a few things we’d have changed out there…”
The home side, mindful the Lions had been superb in defence in their 12-3 win over the Canterbury Crusaders on Saturday, played at a much higher tempo and attacked from greater depth than their south island rivals.
Gatland’s team, however, were more than able to match the locals in an entertaining spectacle but their skill execution again let them down on several occasions.
England centre Joseph did manage to seize on one first-half chance when their forwards created an overlap that was further exploited when Naholo rushed out of position.
Naholo had earlier capitalised on Joseph’s own mistakes in defence when flanker Gareth Evans made ground out wide and the All Blacks winger smashed through the tackle of Courtney Lawes.
Lock Lawes was taken off for a head injury check and did not return.
The sides went into the break with the scores tied at 10-10 but the Lions were soon ahead after the re-start, Seymour snatching a Lima Sopoaga crosskick out of the air and sprinting untouched to the line.
Flyhalf Sopoaga narrowed the gap with his second penalty but then threw a poor pass close to his goal-line to put his side under pressure again, Warburton making the most of the chance and barrelling over for his side’s third try.
Hooker Coltman’s try from a rolling maul, however, brought the Highlanders back to 22-20 and when the home side pushed the Lions scrum off their own ball, Banks stepped up to calmly send the winning kick between the posts.
“Everyone was outstanding. We wanted to play at speed and we converted that into pressure,” Highlanders captain Luke Whitelock said.
“They keep coming wave after wave and the boys were just outstanding getting up tackling and throwing their bodies into it.”