Five things we learned from the British and Irish Lions’ defeat to the Highlanders

Five things we learned from the British and Irish Lions’ defeat to the Highlanders

The British and Irish Lions slipped up for the second time in four matches in New Zealand, with the Highlanders stealing a 23-22 win in Dunedin.

Here, we examine five key lessons from the Lions’ last-gasp loss.

1. The Lions must change the perception of their scrum

New Zealand are targeting the Lions’ scrum as a chink in the tourists’ armour. Warren Gatland’s men are not necessarily struggling at the set-piece, but the Kiwis are desperate to peddle that notion in the hope it will stick in referees’ minds. The Crusaders insisted they had the upper hand at the scrum in the Lions’ 12-3 win on Saturday. The pattern was clear then, and the Highlanders simply kept that claim going. The Highlanders did bully the Lions in the late scrum that allowed Marty Banks to slot the winning penalty, but aside from that the Lions were comfortable – not that the home men would let you believe that. Head coach Gatland’s big job now is to spin the scrum perception on its head, and fast.

2. The gap between the Lions’ possible midweek and Test teams is growing

Ross Moriarty
Ross Moriarty should feature against the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua on Saturday (David Davies/PA)

Gatland wants his entire squad to challenge for a Test place, but already the spine of the team to face the All Blacks is clear. Next up for the Lions are the Maori All Blacks in Rotorua on Saturday, and Gatland always said he would field a majority Test standard XV for that clash. Several big questions about the Test line-up could be answered by the side to take the field. Men like Ross Moriarty, who have had precious little rugby, should have a chance to impress. Anyone who has not yet flourished is now fast running out of opportunities to come good, however.

3. Captain Sam Warburton still has ground to make up in his bid for first Test selection

Warburton grew into the Highlanders clash, hitting a solid level after a patchy opening. The Wales flanker had to fend off a knee problem just to make the tour in the first place, then suffered an ankle injury in the opening match. He has freely admitted he will pull himself out of the first Test running if he is not at full tilt. That June 24 Auckland clash is fast hurtling into view, however. Warburton can expect to be on the bench against the Maori – and he could need a huge cameo performance to edge back ahead of Sean O’Brien for the Lions’ openside shirt for the Test XV.

4. Waisake Naholo will be back to haunt the Lions again in the Test series

The All Blacks let flying wing Naholo loose to play against the Lions for the Highlanders to help him get back to peak match fitness. The barnstorming try-scorer will now be in pole position to start out wide for the All Blacks in the Test series. And on the evidence in Dunedin, the Lions should be worried. Naholo stood up Tommy Seymour and left the Scotland wing for dead from a standing start. Every time Naholo got on the ball the Lions had to scramble to contain him. It will be exactly the same when he turns out for the All Blacks.

5. The Highlanders showed just how the All Blacks will seek to outwit Andy Farrell’s defensive system

The Highlanders
The Highlanders’ rush defence system caused problems for the Lions (Brett Phibbs/New Zealand Herald via AP)

The Lions’ much-vaunted rush defence system can shut down power-runners at source. The downside can be that it leaves space in behind the first-up defensive line. The Highlanders exploited that space with cute grubber and chip kicks into no-man’s land between the front line and back-field. That left the Lions scrambling to cover. One issue this highlighted is that at times the Lions’ back-line struggled when forced into contesting rucks, with their forwards not on the scene following tactical kicks. The Lions’ backs must tighten up their ruck play, as any loose breakdown work will be ruthlessly exploited by the All Blacks. Anything sloppy from the backs at the tackle area following a kick-pass or cross-field kick and the All Blacks will turn them over and steal a sucker-punch score.