Highlanders get past Lions, but only just

AB IN WAITING: Malakai Fekitoa on the charge for the Highlanders against the Lions in Dunedin.
AB IN WAITING: Malakai Fekitoa on the charge for the Highlanders against the Lions in Dunedin.

The Highlanders had a big halftime lead to thank for a scrappy 23-22 win over the Lions in Dunedin tonight.

While the Highlanders will be relieved to bank another win, they let a crucial bonus point slip after scoring three first half tries and, in the end, were lucky just to get the victory.

Four second half tries by the Lions, who had only won one of their last 14 games away from home, gave them a sniff of victory after they had been awful for the first 40 minutes.

Two Richard Buckman five-pointers were the highlights of a first half which wasn't exactly high class but still saw the home team head to the shed leading 23-0.

Having returned home from a successful tour of the Republic, there was always a nagging worry that they could slip up against their fourth South African opponent in a row.

It certainly wasn't the best of the Highlanders in 2014, as they tried to adapt to a number of fresh combinations and - most notably - the loss of Lima Sopoaga at first-five.

Sopoaga should be back for next week's game against the Hurricanes, but Hayden Parker looked cool and collected early in a rare start in the No 10 jersey, converting Buckman's opener from the sideline, kicking a penalty from close to halfway and landing a drop goal all before halftime.

Things could have been even better for Parker, who was just as tidy with his general play, if his teammates had obliged by not scoring their tries in the corners.

The only serious worries for the Highlanders from the opening 40 minutes were injuries to lock Josh Bekhuis and flanker John Hardie.

The Lions, generally a team which travels about as well as seafood, spent much of the first half offering a good argument against South African expansion.

Their attempts to shut down the Highlanders' backline by pressuring Aaron Smith were only minimally successful.

In Sopoaga's absence, Ben Smith pulled his kicking game back out from the closet and reminded those watching just how good a punter of the ball he is, when he's not electing to cut teams up with his running.

A combination of some Highlanders over-eagerness and improved defence by the Lions frustrated the home team after halftime.

Impressive Lions halfback Faf de Klerk snuck a try just after the break, with Marnitz Boshoff adding the extras.

With the likes of Parker, Buckman, Jason Emery, Malakai Fekitoa, Kane Hames, Matias Diaz and Gareth Evans on the pitch, this was a very young Highlanders team.

It showed in some of the decision making once the Highlanders got into a good position, with some ill-advised passing which failed to find some of the gaping holes in the Lions' defence.

The dreary nature of the second half, which included the binning of Chris King for a late hit, almost saw a Mexican wave start amongst the 10,100-strong crowd.

Tellingly, the Lions were unable to score any points while the Highlanders were down to 14 men.

With a five-metre attacking scrum, the Highlanders looked to seal the game with a wide kick by Parker, but it was picked off by Courtnall Skosan instead.

One lonely moment of slick interplay from the Lions ensued and saw Lionel Mapoe cross out wide but then the Lions grabbed a third try through reserve hooker Armand van der Merwe to get within a converted
try of the lead heading into the final 10 minutes.

Coming home hard, the Lions scored with a minute left through winger Skosan, but Elton Jantjies' conversion attempt hit the posts and bounced back to save the Highlanders some serious blushes.

Highlanders 23 (Richard Buckman 2, Gareth Evans tries; Hayden Parker con, pen, drop goal) Lions 22 (Faf de Klerk, Lionel Mapoe, Armand van der Merwe, Cournall Skosan tries; Marnitz Boshoff con)

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