The Highlanders recovered from their loss to the Stormers by holding off a resurgent Lions team 23-22 at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
The Highlanders scored all of their points in the first half while the Lions scored all of theirs in the second half and the result came down to a missed Elton Jantjies conversion on full time.
Leading 23-0 at half time the Highlanders looked to be on track for a bonus point victory but having travelled back from South Africa in the week the Highlanders tired in the final quarter and the Lions took full advantage.
The Lions scored four tries in the second half to earn their first four try bonus point of the season and with the missed conversion the Lions also earned their first bonus point for losing within seven points.
Jantjies’ attempt to convert Courtnall Skosan’s late try, which could have provided the winning points of the match, drifted just wide of the posts as referee Angus Gardner sounded the final whistle.
But Jantjies was clearly entitled to a second attempt as the Highlanders had charged early and the match ended on that note of controversy.
Winger Richard Buckman scored two first half tries to spur the Highlanders to what seemed an unassailable halftime lead. He had his first try after only two minutes, from a move which appeared to contain two forward passes, and flyhalf Hayden Parker’s sideline conversion gave the Highlanders an early 7-0 lead.
Buckman scored again in the 37th minute, showing searing pace to win a kick and chase contest with the Lions defense, and replacement Gareth Evans also scored in a three minute spell immediately before halftime to give the Highlanders a weighty 23-0 lead at the break.
The Highlanders seemed in control of the match at halftime but the Lions significantly changed their tactics in the second half and forced their way back into the match as the home team tired.
They controlled possession through well-organized forward drives from lineouts and they began to intrude more regularly into Highlanders’ territory with an effective pick-and-go style of play.
Scrumhalf Faf de Klerk scored their first try three minutes into the second spell, giving them a surge of confidence, and they followed up with tries to center Lionel Mapoe in the 66th minute, Armand van der Merwe in the 70th and Skosan in the 79th to strip away the Highlanders’ advantage.
Skosan’s brilliant try, from a flicked-on pass by Jantjies, cut the Highlanders’ lead to a single point and gave the Lions the chance to win the match with Jantjies’ conversion.
He was clearly distracted when the Highlanders charged his kick and he struck the ball across the posts. The Lions protested but referee Gardner declined to allow him a second attempt.
That decision meant Lions suffered the second-straight defeat on their tour of Australia and New Zealand and their 44th loss in 47 matches outside South Africa since Super Rugby began.
The Highlanders’ sixth win in 10 games hauled them back inside the top six playoffs zone, pending the outcome of other matches in this weekend’s 13th round.
Final Score Highlanders 23 (23) Lions 22 (0)
Tries – R.Buckman 2, G.Evans
Pen – H.Parker
Con – H.Parker
Drop – H.Parker
Cards – C.King (54th min yellow)
Tries – F.De Klerk, L.Mapoe, A. van der Merwe , C. Skosan
Con – M.Boshoff