Close quarters combat: Otago Highlanders v British and Irish Lions

Otago Highlanders v British & Irish Lions
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Myth and Legend is common in Scotland and the British Isles. History over two millennia gives a strong foundation, in stories and tales. The Scottish highlands especially have tales of brave souls, of men and women and heroic deeds. And last night, the Otago Highlanders added to their own legendary status.

Doing battle on the rugby field, the proud folk of Otago, New Zealand witnessed 23 brave men face the might of the United Kingdom. The British and Irish Lions touring rugby side were dealt a deadly blow to their pride, as the men from the South Island of New Zealand, defeated them 23-22.

Close Quarters Combat in Traditional Battleground

Dunedin, situated at the bottom right corner of New Zealand (NZ) is referred to as Scotland of the South due to it’s rich heritage. Settlers from the Northern Hemisphere were the original pioneers of the region, and who brought the sport of ‘rugby football’ to Otago.

And the relationship of cultures extends to a proud history on the field. With the original 1888 British Lions tour opening that club’s strong history from this very starting place, now over 100 years later, the traditional rivals on Tuesday night waged close quarters combat, in a game that was separated in the end by only a single point.

That winning advantage came in the form of a crucial penalty goal, kicked by a young man who is fast becoming a ‘living legend’. Marty Banks, the utility back whose accuracy assisted the Highlanders to another famous victory, in the province’s history.

The game was won in the final scoring moment of a tense game, the roar of an approvaing crowd rang loudly around the Forsyth-Barr Stadium. To the joy of the hosts, and the consternation of the visitors, it was a game that fell the way of the home side.

Highlanders 23 British and Irish Lions 22

This was the fourth game of the 2017 DHL Lions Tour. A midweek fixture of course, but still one that was a crucial step on the road of a rich history and leading up to the test series. The sixth Otago encounter over a long, long history of 100 plus years.

To signify this importance, a pre-match challenge was offered. With Maori warriors leading out the two sides, it was poignant of the passion each side holds for the game of Rugby. A formal line-up of the two teams was made mid-field, before a ceremonial exchange of a traditional claymore sword was given – see below image. 

Otago Highlanders’ captain Luke Whitelock (L) presents Sam Warburton with a Claymore sword. (Photo credit MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)

The Celtic history of the region was characterized by ‘the sword and shield’ of the Otago Highlanders logo. The strength of the side was demonstrated before the ball was even placed, ready for the match to kick-off.

Highlanders Play With Their Hearts on Their Sleeves

The match opened with the Otago Highlanders fearsome right winger Waisake Naholo ‘blasting’ up the sideline. That was a taste of the attitude from the homeside. On their home turf, they looked to attack. And while there was a cut-and-thrust over the whole game, it was clear that the British and Irish Lions would have a challenge on their hands.

Many of the visiting players were impressive. Halfback Rhys Webb was one, and the visitors put everything into the game. In fact, when Naholo crossed for his try, an attempted tackle from Courtney Lawes saw him collide with the Fijian wingers shoulder. Lawes was taken off with a concussion, as Naholo was saluted by his adoring fans.

Many will say that the Lions ‘lost the game’, and that is true. The ashen look on players, coaches and supporters faces ilustrated that. But nothing can deny if you watch the end result, how proud players like Kane Hammington, or tryscorer Liam Coltman feel. Pure elation, and the legend of Marty Banks grows.

Indomitable Attacking Courage of the Otago Highlanders

As SkySports commentator Stuart Barnes put it, “if Elliot Daly had kicked the penalty, then they could look back on it as ‘just another scrum’ but sometimes;

“the outcome is more important than the event itself.”

Barnes is referring to the indomitable counter attack of the home team. Something learned during Super Rugby, the home side were tough opponents for the Lions team. More used to taking advantage of ‘those moments’. Substitutes did their job, especially with Marty Banks coming on to finish the job started by Lima Sopoaga.

Jonathan Joseph of the Lions dives over to score his team’s first try during the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour match between the Highlanders and the British & Irish Lions at the Forsyth Barr Stadium. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Not to be totally outmatched, the Lions managed to score three times. Jonathon Joseph (see above image) ran hard and fast, and scored an excellent center’s try. Tommy Seymor was able to intercept a kick-pass; one of the tools which New Zealand may use in the test series–although a risky option for the All Blacks now noted by their coaches. And tour captain Sam Warburton used his body position to push over the line, and they very nearly won the game.

But only nearly. The history books will read;

Highlanders 23 (Waisake Naholo, Liam Coltman tries; Lima Sopoaga con, 2 pen; Marty Banks con, pen)
British & Irish Lions 22 (Jonathan Joseph, Tommy Seymour, Sam Warburton tries; Dan Biggar 2 con, pen).

Lions Taste Defeat in Dunedin

“Some big moments we didn’t nail” was the comment from head coach Warren Gatland after the match. “You come down to New Zealand, and Super Rugby teams play for 80 minutes.

“Unfortunately, in key moments tonight we couldn’t nail”.

That comment may signify the difference in attitude, but also where the Otago Highlanders benefit most in Super Rugby regular play. The British and Irish Lions will need to match that intensity over the full series, if they are going to challenge upcoming teams: the New Zealand Maori, Saturday June 17. And importantly, the first test on June 24.

If anything can be learned from this match, it is that the traditional rivals; such as existed on previous tours, are now replaced by the franchise teams. The Blues, Crusaders, Highlanders, Chiefs and finally the Hurricanes. It is a huge wall to climb by the tourists–only made more difficult now, thanks to a famous Otago Highlanders victory that adds to myth and legend in the deep south.

“Main photo credit”