DUNEDIN, New Zealand (AP) — The British and Irish Lions have had another setback with a second loss in eight days, this time edged 23-22 by an under-strength Highlanders lineup on Tuesday.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders, lacking nine frontline players, set out to play the match at a frenzied pace and the Lions resistance to that style was fully tested.
But the Lions rallied and led 22-13 when captain Sam Warburton capped a strong comeback from injury with a try in 53rd minute, wading through tackles from a ruck 10 meters out. Center Jonathan Joseph and winger Tommy Seymour scored earlier tries as the Lions were goaded by the Highlanders into producing some of their best attacking form on tour.
The Highlanders hit back late with a try to Liam Coltman to make it 22-20 and set up another tense finish, and Marty Banks slotted the winning penalty goal with seven minutes remaining.
The Lions looked to this match to carry momentum they achieved in last Saturday's 12-3 win over the Crusaders into the week leading up to the first test against New Zealand. Instead, they gave up some of that momentum and confidence with a performance which lacked finesse and the defensive resolve that marked the Crusaders victory.
The Lions have won two and lost two matches on tour. The weekend's challenging clash against a strong New Zealand Maori lineup may now become pivotal the Lions' test buildup as coach Warren Gatland unveils his first-string XV.
Warburton, returning from an ankle injury which has restricted him to only 60 minutes playing time on tour, had a strong game and saw positives in a performance in which the Lions outscored the Highlanders three tries to two.
All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo and hooker Coltman scored the home team's tries in a tight match that was locked 10-10 at halftime.
"We scored a couple of tries which was one of the work-ons for us this week," Warburton said. "I thought this was a match on a nice dry track against a team that has nothing to lose so we knew the ball was going to get thrown around a bit.
"I think if we could go back in times there were a few things we would have changed about that which hopefully would have seen us come out on the better end of the scoreboard."
Warburton said the Lions' discipline was disappointing. After conceding few penalties against the Crusaders, they gave up 13 against the Highlanders including four in succession during the second half.
"The good thing about this is we're going to learn a lot more from a game where we lose by one point than win by 60," he said. "There were high-pressure situations in the game which we probably could have dealt with a little bit better."
The Highlanders signaled their intention from the outset, keeping the ball for most of the first five minutes and moving it at high tempo but settling for an opening penalty to flyhalf Lima Sopoaga.
The Lions equalized through Dan Biggar before the Highlanders made it 10-3 through Naholo, who showed power as he spun through tackles near the goalposts.
The Lions produced a brilliant try to Joseph in which their backs at last showed finishing skill. Biggar looped around his center and passed to Joseph, who burst through a hole in the Highlanders' defense.
Just after halftime, Seymour timed his challenge for a cross kick by Sopoaga, won the ball cleanly in the air and dashed away to score, putting the Lions ahead 15-10. Sopoaga landed another penalty before Warburton's try, from a concerted build-up in which Joseph handled twice, seemed to have clinched the game for the Lions who led by nine points.
But Coltman scored from a lineout drive in the 60th and replacement flyhalf Banks became an instant star with the conversion and the winning penalty.
Elliot Daly missed with a late, long-range effort for the Lions.
"It was like a test match," Highlanders captain Luke Whitelock said. "We watched how the Lions have been playing, they just keep coming wave after wave and the boys were just outstanding getting up and tackling and throwing their bodies into it."
The Lions had a serious injury setback when they lost lock Courtney Lawes to a head injury.