The High Five: Highlanders vs Lions

Diggercane Roar Guru

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    The British and Irish Lions have lost their second match on the 2017 tour, going down to the Highlanders in a thrilling match played in front of another full house by 23 points to 22.

    This leaves them with a two win-two loss record after four matches.

    Here is my ‘High Five’ from the Highlanders and Lions clash.

    Lions lose momentum?
    It was suggested the Lions needed to win tonight to maintain the momentum within the squad and build confidence heading into the big matches to come against the All Blacks.

    Really?

    These blokes are all professionals and no one wants to lose but it is hard for me to swallow that the guys who played against the Crusaders and didn’t play against the Highlanders would suddenly feel poorly.

    Perhaps they will place themselves under more pressure, knowing they need to win and all that, but there is a clear difference to me now between the top 20 odd versus the rest in this Lions team. The top side has already shown they are a very different proposition and I doubt this loss will do any great damage.

    However, the Maori clash next Saturday does shape as a pivotal match for coach Warren Gatland’s likely shadow Test side.

    Kiwis learn quickly
    The defensive pressure the Lions managed against the Crusaders worked a treat and a repeat was tried again this evening. The Highlanders showed they had been paying attention and managed to negate the Lions press with an exaggerated kicking game, searching for the space in behind the line and finding it often.

    They placed themselves on the front foot through varying their attack in the face of the the Lions’ aggression. They pressured them on numerous occasions at the ruck – perhaps surprising their more seasoned opposition – with their pace and tenacity and certainly troubling the Lions from unstructured play.

    I think the greatest lesson here for the Lions is that what may have worked one week, will not necessarily work the next week. The New Zealand sides will be very quick to pick up on any trends, whether on defence or attack, as the tour unfolds.

    In fairness to the Lions, they certainly showed more variation with ball in hand and outscored the Highlanders. It was three tries to two and the Kiwi side certainly displayed more cohesion on attack this evening.

    Malakai Fekitoa Highlanders Super Rugby Union 2017

    (AAP Image/SNPA, Adam Binns)

    Awww, REF!
    On paper, it was not hard to imagine the Highlanders being given a royal lesson up front this evening but the reality proved far from the case. They more than held their own, including earning a match-winning penalty against their international opposition which gave them the final one-point margin.

    The common perception down in these parts is that the northern hemisphere sides are always strong at the set piece, the maul etc but is that the reality? Has the New Zealand game dramatically improved its scrummaging?

    I suspect it has more to do with how the scrums are officiated. There have been a few northern hemisphere fans scratching their heads in bewilderment as whistle blowers from either side of the equator came up with some odd decisions.

    There does seem to be a difference in the way the set piece is viewed by referees from either side of the world. This is of course frustrating for all involved. To me, it is another challenge for World Rugby to get control of and gain some level of consistency across the board.

    Stand up you ‘rookies’
    While most eyes were trained upon the Highlanders available All Blacks and how they would perform, it was the ‘lesser’ lights that really stood up and took their opportunity.

    Jackson Hemopo and Dillon Hunt were two players to really shine, while Gareth Evans and Luke Whitelock were prominent throughout the match. Whitelock in particular had a staggering match on defence.

    Liam Coltman reminded the All Black selectors he is still available at hooker while out wide, Richard Buckman further cemented his tag as the most ‘underrated’ player in the New Zealand game. His work rate and skill level are exceptional.

    Waisake Naholo did his chances absolutely no harm with a strong all round game, always threatening with ball in hand but also strong in defence. His ruck work his excellent forcing a turnover at one point and safe under the high ball.

    He has certainly done his chances no harm in being considered for a wing position come the Test series.

    So, when do we fix the roof?
    Mid June in New Zealand, playing at night, is generally not the most pleasant experience for all and sundry. However, there is no doubt the quality of the encounters we see time and time again from Dunedin.

    Of course it may not be practical for every area or affordable, but surely we should all be moving to eventually see such facilities across the board here at home? It just seems such a no brainer.

    So those are my talking points from last night’s Lions match. We witnessed the Highlanders add another chapter to their region’s rich history, a sixth win by an Otago-based side against the touring Lions.

    We all impatiently wait to see what the next match in this intriguing series throws at us this coming Saturday.

    A Rotundity and happy ex hooker who just loves Rugby really, oh and my kids and Kendra of course who lets me watch as much Rugby as I want, mostly. Follow Digby Ross on Twitter @Diggercane.

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