The Highlanders led 23-0 at half-time in their Super 15 clash on Saturday but failed to score a point in the second half as the Lions stormed back with the outcome hinging on a conversion attempt by replacement fly-half Elton Jantjies after the final whistle.
The ball hit the posts and bounced back onto the field and an appeal by Lions captain Warren Whiteley for the kick to be taken again because the Highlanders had charged too soon was turned down by Australian referee Angus Gardiner.
The victory put the Highlanders, who lost last week in South Africa to the lowly Stormers, just five points behind the New Zealand conference leaders Waikato Chiefs but with a game in hand.
However, for the Lions the wafer-thin loss meant further misery.
After starting the season strongly, they have now lost five in a row although they still remain third in the South African conference behind the Coastal Sharks and Northern Bulls.
In the high-paced game, the Highlanders were immediately on the board when Richard Buckman scored the first of his two tries by wrong-footing the defence down the right wing.
The Lions had enough possession to be threatening and produced every variation in their playbook only to be constantly stalled by the well-drilled Highlanders who gradually edged away with a penalty and drop goal by Hayden Parker.
The Highlanders broadened the buffer in the last four minutes of the half when they punished the Lions with two quick tries.
The first, from turnover ball, produced Buckman’s second try when he outsprinted the Lions defence after Phil Burleigh had booted the ball 50 metres downfield.
Then on the stroke of half-time, replacement Gareth Evans scored in the corner after Ben Smith had shredded the Lions’ defensive line.
But the short turn around after the journey back from South Africa during the week began to take its toll on the Highlanders from the moment play resumed.
Two minutes after the restart Francois de Klerk drove over to cap a series of pick-and-goes by a Lions pack able to find holes where the Highlanders tight five should have been.
Marnitz Boshoff landed the conversion but then crucially, the normally reliable kicker, missed his next two shots at goal when Lionel Mapoe and Armand van der Merwe scored to leave the Lions six points down at 23-17.
On the stroke of full-time, Courtnall Skosan scored in the corner but Boshoff’s replacement Jantjies was unable to seal the game. – Sapa-AFP