Yet the hurt followed the tourists across town yesterday as the Highlanders inflicted a second defeat in four games at the start of this New Zealand tour.
Just three wins over the Otago provincial side in eight visits to Carisbrook since 1950 and two Test defeats of the All Blacks in six attempts over the same period had marked the old place out as a graveyard for the combined talents of the four nations but the move to the covered Forsyth Barr Stadium did not prove to be a successful cure as the 2017 Lions threw away their shot at victory yesterday.
That it was a largely self-inflicted loss against a Highlanders side bound for Super Rugby’s play-offs yet without nine frontline internationals made for even more discomfort as the Lions left Dunedin and the South Island behind and flew north to Rotorua for Saturday’s clash with the Maori All Blacks.
Head coach Warren Gatland has said from the outset of this tour that he will select a team against the Maori close to his strongest selection a week out from the first Test against world champions New Zealand but it is difficult to see many of those who started yesterday’s contest staking a claim to a jersey for the Eden Park series opener a week on Saturday.
Last weekend’s impressive 12-3 win over Super Rugby’s previously unbeaten Crusaders laid down a marker and created the momentum on which the players who followed three days later could build. Despite some good periods of play and the most successful night yet in terms of try-scoring as Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour, and Sam Warburton crossed the line to build a 22-13 lead early in the second half, this was a performance that represented a step back after the two steps forward taken in Christchurch.
Warburton may be one of the exceptions after the tour captain made a successful return from an ankle strain suffered in the opening game, his first in almost two months following a knee injury. Yet the openside flanker felt the pain as much as his comrades after his 54th minute try under the posts was followed by a succession of late penalties as the Lions threw away their chance of victory.
“There was a string of four penalties (after the try) and when you’re giving away field position, 40, 50 yards every time it hurts you,” Warburton said. “I wouldn’t blame it on one instance but there was a string of too many penalties that we gave away.
“You’ve got to give credit to the Highlanders, they forced them out of us, but you can look back at a lot of them and say they were avoidable, so that was probably what hurt us most. When we had territory, I think it was a scrum penalty and it went back to a lineout, we were offside, and they just snowballed in a few penalties and that hurts a bit too much.”
So too will the missed penalty 12 minutes from time from replacement fly-half Owen Farrell. Having replaced starting 10 Dan Biggar moments earlier, the goal-kicking hero of Christchurch missed the posts when points were needed most, the Highlanders having added to Waisake Naholo’s first-half try with a maul try from Liam Coltman, converted by Marty Banks, to close their deficit to 22-20.
That Naholo try had also frustrated the Lions, and Robbie Henshaw in particular, as referee Angus Gardner and TMO Marius Jonker waved away the Irishman’s complaint he was obstructed from closing down the All Blacks wing by the sizeable obstacle of lock Alex Ainley. Jonker agreed there had been obstruction but decided Henshaw was unlikely to have reached Naholo anyway.
“I think I would have got a good shot on him (Naholo) if their player doesn’t change his line,” Henshaw insisted. “If you look back at the footage, I asked a couple of guys, he definitely steps. He doesn’t stay in his position. He steps into me. I don’t know. It’s the TMO and the officials who deal with it. Certainly, I think if (Ainley) hadn’t stepped I would have got to him.
“I said it to the ref but he said he had no issues with it. So, it’s their decision.” It was one of those “big moments” Gatland referred to as not going the Lions’ way against a team who refused to lay down.
“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,” the head coach said.
For both Gatland and starting hooker Rory Best this was a game thrown away by poor decisions and sloppy discipline in the final quarter, eight penalties conceded in the second half from which the Ireland captain said the Lions had to learn and put right.
“It’s being ruthless. If we get to Saturday or the following Tuesday (against the Chiefs) or Saturday week (in the first Test) more importantly and we go 22-13 up and we don’t put a foot on the throat, that is what New Zealand teams are good at.
“When the game breaks up and you give them a chance back in, you give them half a sniff and they take it. I think if we get in 10 days’ time, 22-13 up with 20 minutes left to play, that’s a point where you have got to get really strong, really exit and probably you have to be more clued in than at any other time in the game because that is when they are the most dangerous, whenever you feel you are out of sight.”
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.
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.