Lions aim to continue form improvement v Highlanders

Warren Gatland (Getty)
Warren Gatland (Getty)

Wellington - The British and Irish Lions took a big morale boost from their win over the Christchurch-based Crusaders last weekend but need to keep that feeling alive on Tuesday when they play the Dunedin-based Highlanders in their fourth tour match. 

A 12-3 win over a Crusaders team which was unbeaten in 14 Super Rugby matches this season was seen by the Lions as a validation of their playing style and a stinging riposte to critics who had written them off after their stumbling start to the New Zealand tour. 

Coach Warren Gatland was quick to claim that the win over the Crusaders, by four penalty goals to one, was evidence that the Lions are on track to stretch New Zealand in the impending three-Test series. 

As an affirmation of the things the Lions are trying to achieve on tour, Gatland said, "the result was more important than the performance." The win was also an endorsement of Gatland's selection which saw the first outing on tour for a line-up of near test-strength. 

Tuesday's match will allow a handful of players to push their case for Test selection before Gatland gives his full Test line-up a run against the New Zealand Maori in Rotorua on Saturday. 

The Lions have emphasized the importance of not losing momentum achieved against the Crusaders or falling away from the form benchmark. 

Both of those things could happen if the Lions do not treat the Highlanders match with caution. On paper, the home team does not seem to pose a major threat, missing at least nine players who were recently named in the All Blacks or New Zealand Maori squads. 

The Highlanders lineup contains only two current All Blacks - flyhalf Lima Sopoaga and wing Waisake Naholo, and a few such as centre Malakai Fekitoa who narrowly missed selection for the Lions series.

But the Highlanders, who won nine straight matches in Super Rugby this season before losing to the Crusaders, have developed a neat ability to play well in the absence of their stars. 

Backrower Luke Whitelock, who will captain the Highlanders against the Lions only three days after his brother Sam captained the Crusaders, says his team will throw everything at the tourists.

"You don't want to die wondering and think 'what if?'" Whitelock said. "You've just got to go out there and express yourself and get stuck into it really." 

The Lions will be aiming to improve on their record of having scored only two tries in their three tour matches to date - one each in their 13-7 win over the Provincial Barbarians and their 22-16 loss to the Blues. 

The Lions went tryless and held the Crusaders tryless in Saturday's match, leaving a target for Gatland's critics who say the tourists' lack of try-scoring ability is of concern. 

But Gatland rejected those suggestions, emphasizing the Lions' ability to shut down a team that had averaged five tries per game in Super Rugby this season. He was happy with many aspects of the Lions' attacking game in Christchurch, especially their use of accurate kicking to get in behind the Crusaders defensive line. 

"We got in behind (the Crusaders), we made 13 line breaks, I didn't see any negative rugby," Gatland said. "I saw some positive rugby, players moving the ball to try and stress them. I was pleased with that and we will continue to do that." 

Scotland wing Tommy Seymour said he doesn't believe the Lions lack composure in finishing. 

"I don't think it's nerves or a frantic nature," he said. "We know things we're going to correct. I have no doubt this group of players will find rhythm and once we do (it'll) be happy days."

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