By Simon Lewis, Dunedin
Warren Gatland believes his British and Irish Lions shot themselves in the foot as they lost 23-22 to the Highlanders under the roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium today.
Three days after scoring a superb victory over Super Rugby's unbeaten Crusaders, the tourists succumbed to their second defeat in four matches on this tour of New Zealand as the Otago side came from 22-13 down to snatch a dramatic late victory.
It was a defeat all of the Lions own making as they failed to close out a game that had finally saw them score more than one try in a game, tries coming from Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour and captain Sam Warburton on his comeback from an ankle injury.
A sloppy endgame which saw them concede eight second-half penalties allowed the Highlanders, missing nine of their All Blacks three days out from their warm-up Test against Samoa, back into this contest with a succession of scrum misdemeanours costing Gatland's men dearly.
Marty Banks sent over a 72nd minute penalty to push the home team in front, from where they held on for the win.
“I think guys are disappointed,” Gatland said. “We put ourselves in a position at 22-13 to control that game and win it. The unfortunate thing is we probably shot ourselves in the foot, haven’t we, with some turnovers and some penalties towards the end of the game and have allowed them the opportunity to sneak it from us.”
Gatland has four days to regain ground lost after the Crusaders win ahead of the Lions' clash with the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua on Saturday.
He has promised to name his strongest team to date for game five of this 2017 tour, with a starting XV the head coach would be close to Test strength a week out form their first of three showdowns with world champions New Zealand.
Gatland said: "We are disappointed but there were some big moments, some key moments we need to work from and improve and make sure that we are better next time that we take the field.
“The big lesson about New Zealand sides, they keep playing for 80 minutes and they keep going for the full 80 minutes and probably that's the big learning some of the players got from tonight.”
Just as the Blues had struck late with a 74th minute winning try in Auckland last Wednesday, the Highlanders did not stray from their gameplan to outlast the Lions, although a missed penalty from substitute fly-half Owen Farrell, who had replaced the cramping Dan Biggar only seconds before in the 68th minute, was another example of failing to kill off their rivals.
Gatland said: "There are very very fine margins and the fine margins are that we miss a penalty that Owen would normally kick every day and at the other end Marty Banks kicks a penalty and that is the difference between losing by a point and winning by a couple.
"We have gone single figures (for penalties conceded) on Saturday – I think seven penalties against (Crusaders) and double figures (12) tonight. Eight or nine penalties in that last 10 or 12 minutes.
"That really hurt us and we have to make sure we are better in those moments because that sometimes is the difference between winning and losing games."
Gatland at least saw his tour captain Sam Warburton return from an ankle strain suffered in the opening game 10 days ago, with the openside flanker scoring the Lions' third try in the 54th minute.
Yet on the day when Stuart Hogg was ruled out for the rest of the tour due to a facial bone fracture, he was greeted with the sight of second row Courtney Lawes going off for a Head Injury Assessment after his head made heavy contact with try scorer Waisake Naholo's body in the 27th minute.
Scrum-half Rhys Webb was also withdrawn although the head coach said there was nothing serious about the pair.
"He just got a whack in the glute or something like that, a haematoma, he's fine," he said of Webb.
"Courtney will go through the HIA protocol."
HIGHLANDERS: R Buckman; W Naholo, M Fekitoa (M Banks, 11-16), T Walden, T Li (P Osborne, 68); L Sopoaga (M Banks, 55), K Hammington (J Renton, 76); D Leinert-Brown (A Seiuli, 59), L Coltman (G Pleasants-Tate, 68), S Tokolahi (S Halanukonuka, 68); A Ainley (J Dickson, 55), J Hemopo; G Evans, D Hunt (J Lentjes, 59), L Whitelock – captain.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: J Payne (E Daly, 62); J Nowell, J Joseph, R Henshaw, T Seymour; D Biggar (O Farrell, 68), R Webb (G Laidlaw, 48) ; J Marler (J McGrath, 55), R Best (K Owens, 25-29, 49), K Sinckler (D Cole, 49); C Lawes (AW Jones, 27), I Henderson; J Haskell, S Warburton – captain (J Tipuric, 66), CJ Stander.