Kiwi press react: Lions might feel they have ‘gone back to square one’

New Zealand media hail a magical night for the Highlanders as Lions are beaten again

'Highlanders Claim Magical Victory' proclaimed the headline in the New Zealand Herald and it offered an inkling of the tone that rugby wrier Gregor Paul adopted in his match report on a great night for the Otago franchise.

The Lions will rue another match of missed opportunities and for the second time on this tour they fell foul of the interpretation of Australian match official Angus Gardner, conceding 12 penalties, a figure that lay at the very heart of their defeat.

Paul, in keeping with what is a supportive New Zealand media, trumpeted that “it’s one small step back for the Lions and one giant leap forward for New Zealand rugby and the Highlanders.”

He continued: “It was a magical night for the Highlanders - another win against the Lions to match the one Otago secured in 1993. Just as brave, just as creative and just as damaging for the visitors who might feel they have gone back to square one, or close to it.”


Ideal conditions

Paul made the point that because of the ideal conditions under the roof in Dunedin, the Lions couldn’t turn their defence into an offensive weapon as they had managed in the victory over the Crusaders last weekend. He maintained that there were few positives on the night for the tourists before drilling down a little more in his analysis.

“They couldn’t hold the ball when they needed to. They couldn’t make the big plays under pressure and their forwards, well, they were well beaten. At the scrum, in the loose and in the collision. The warning has made for these Lions, if they can’t slow the game down to their pace, they aren’t anywhere near the same team.”

The New Zealander Herald's Andrew Alderson wasn't that impressed with a couple of Irish Lions, rather bizarrely giving Jared Payne and Iain Henderson the same rating of five points out of a possible 10, stating that Payne "had hunched shoulders like Quasimodo, reflecting the pressure weighing on him," while Henderson "munched through opposition at rucks like Pacman."

Robert van Royen, writing on the website explained how the victorious Highlanders received a text from their head coach Tony Brown, currently in Japan on a sabbatical as backs coach to the Brave Blossoms in their upcoming two test series against Ireland.

Absent coach

Under the headline “Highlanders coach Tony Brown ‘extremely proud’ of team after beating Lions,” van Royen interviewed defence coach Scott MacLeod who confirmed that Brown had sent his congratulations.

The Highlanders were missing nine players and their coach. “He’s led this team really well this year, he’s created a lot of the attitude that you saw out there tonight so I’m sure he’s missing this occasion.

"But he has said he's extremely proud and he just wanted to convey that to the team and the staff." On the same site Richard Knowler wrote: "a lopsided penalty count favoured the Highlanders 12-7, while an inability to cope with their opponents' kicking game and a scrum that got stung with penalties at vital moments skewered the Lions hopes of leaving the South Island with a second victory."

Those words were found under the headline, “Warren Gatland under blowtorch again following Lions’ capitulation in Dunedin.” The New Zealand media won’t let an opportunity slip by to indulge in a bit of verbal shoeing.

Mark Reason wrote an interesting opinion piece that was heavily critical of the Lions back play moving him at one point to observe: "At least the Lions scored tries and at least one of those scores resulted when a couple of their players actually committed a defender. Ye Gods, we thought such things had been lost from northern hemisphere rugby - Mike Gibson and Barry John, look on their works and despair.

“But we should be thankful for even these meagre crumbs of the bread of heaven. It wasn’t wonderful, but in the context of the Lions it was wondrous.”

He also cited the role of television match official, South African Marius Jonker, during the Lions tour to date. Reason wrote: "The one question that the Lions and their supporters might legitimately ask is what on earth the TMO Marius Jonker has been up to in his ivory box.

“He has now overseen six marginal decisions and every one has gone against the Lions. He allowed SBW’s (Sonny Bill Williams) try for the Blues to stand. He let the Blues take a scrum seven metres further from their line than it should have been.

"Owen Farrell's kick apparently did not go through the posts. Two potential Lions groundings were not given against the Highlanders in the first half. And then when Alex Ainsley blatantly obstructed Robbie Henshaw to open the space for Naholo's try Jonker said there was no case to answer. The South African may well find himself wrong in that judgment."

The Otago Daily Times were more prosaic in their headline of “Highlanders beat Lions in Thriller” but there was perhaps offering the best balance and being less parochial than most of the New Zealand outlets reviewed.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer