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
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."