Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Highlanders maul Lions to thrill Zoo

Ben Smith proved elusive against the Lions. Photo / Getty
Ben Smith proved elusive against the Lions. Photo / Getty

Highlanders 34
Lions 15

It's a safe enough bet the Highlanders are going to mount a credible defence of their title. More than that, they are on track to mount a compelling defence.

They were too good for a strong Lions team in Dunedin tonight, possessing too much pace, vision and ability to counter attack. That was the difference, really. The Highlanders were able to blast into life when no one expected it.

They were able to be patient and disciplined on defence, force a mistake and then put together these stunning passages that brought points.

They had a 10-minute spell after the break when they gave a master-class in opportunism and clinical finishing. Firstly Ben and Aaron Smith combined with a quick lineout that left the former clear with 80m to cover. Then Matt Faddes plucked an intercept and took off to the corner and that was the Lions sunk.

For good measure, Malakai Fekitoa got on the end of a Gareth Evans break that was launched inside their own 22 after yet another turnover. There may not be a better 10-minute period than that all season, certainly not one with equal deadliness.

It was harsh on the visitors, who had been right in it up until then, but it wasn't reflective of the game - reflective because these lightning raids are what the Highlanders are all about.

If it was the Hurricanes' party trick last year, it's going to be the southerners' in 2016.

The Highlanders were superb at flicking a switch and suddenly erupting to life. They'd be defending, turn the ball over and in a flash be at top speed making sharp passes with support runners appearing from nowhere.

It was counter-attacking rugby at its best, but it wasn't all they offered. Their scrum was a weapon, too, and that was without big Joe Wheeler for most of the game after he had to leave with concussion.

Dan Pryor did the work of three men at openside and the front row have to be acknowledged not just for scrummaging so well, but for also adding their weight and presence to the breakdown.

It was a classic team performance and, after a slowish start, the Highlanders are flowing again.

And what can't get lost in this performance is that the Lions were stiff opposition no matter what the scoreboard says. They were bang-in the game for 40 minutes showing why they are one of the tournament's great transformation teams - not just from where they were a few years ago, but from where they were in the first round of this competition.

They opened with an ugly, disjointed performance in Tokyo that had the look of the bad, old days about it, but in the last two weeks have been a totally different team. They have advanced from the good foundation they set last year and found in Elton Jantjies a playmaker who has the confidence now as well as the skills to bring their game together.

They have improved as much on defence as they have on attack and they are no longer a team that disintegrates after they have had to defend a few phases.

The weird thing is they didn't fall apart by any means - there was nothing they could do against such swift and smooth attacks. They couldn't scramble quickly enough once the Highlanders were in space. No side in the competition could have.

Highlanders 34 (M. Faddes 2, B. Smith, M. Fekitoa tries; L. Sopoaga 4 cons, pens, dg)
Lions 15 (R. Van Rensburg, R. Ackerman tries; E.Jantjies con, pen)
Halftime: 10-3.

- Herald on Sunday

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