The British and Irish Lions enjoyed their final midweek game on Tuesday with an enthralling, seesaw contest against Super Rugby side Hurricanes in Wellington.
For many, it was their Lions swan-song while for others it was a final opportunity to put their hand up for consideration for the final two Tests against the All Blacks.
In calm conditions, a rejigged Lions XV contained the try-scoring Hurricanes juggernaut with relative ease in the first half, with the second-row pair of Courtney Lawes and Iain Henderson causing all kinds of trouble for the home side.
The late withdrawal of Jared Payne from the squad saw Leigh Halfpenny join the bench and he was called into action early when Robbie Henshaw departed early in the first half with an arm or shoulder injury.
A reshuffle of the pack saw Halfpenny come in at full-back, with Jack Nowell switching to the wing. George North, who hoped to show his worth out wide was forced to drop into unfamiliar territory at inside centre.
Despite the changes, the Lions ran in two tries in the first half, one from Tommy Seymour following a sublime interception from compatriot Greig Laidlaw. The second came from North following a Dan Bigger Garryowen that was scooped up expertly by Henderson, who offloaded the onrushing North.
The second half saw the Hurricanes enjoy early momentum. Counteracting the Lions blitz defence, the home side went over early in the corner. With pressure mounting on the Lions, it was a Henderson charge down and gather after 50 minutes that swung pressure back on the home side.
A further well worked Lions move saw Tommy Seymour go over again his third try of the tour and put some distance back between the sides. A fourth try, this time from North, was ruled out for a foot in touch, keeping the contest alive.
A somewhat unfortunate yellow card for Henderson after 65 minutes saw the Lions take a serious wobble as the Hurricanes scored two tries to level the game going into the final ten minutes.
Sloppy play and simple handling errors didn’t make things any easier for the Lions as they threw away a 14 point lead.
There then following some massive home pressure as they pressed for victory but the Lions held firm and worked to seal a victory of their own with some strong counter-pressure and aggression.
Dan Biggar was handed his chance on 80 minutes but his difficult drop goal attempt from some 40 metres out came down on the wrong side of the bar.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable game of rugby, played out between two complimentary and evenly matched sides. For the Lions, standout performances have given Warren Gatland some food for though ahead of his sqaud announcement for the second Test.
Those who stood out most for a call-up include,
The second row was an absolute monster both in defence and attack. Between stealing ball in the breakdown, charging down Hurricanes kicking and scooping up loose ball, the Irishman was immense. Add to this his ball carrying and unstoppable line breaking, Henderson was the standout player in the Lions pack.
A, questionably, unlucky yellow card on 65 minutes saw the Ulsterman cut a lonley figure on the sideline as the home side took advantage of his absence.
On the back of an imperious display, Henderson must surely have played himself firmly intro contention for a call up to the Lions Test squad.
Henderson’s partner in the second row showed there were no ill-effects of the head injury he suffered against the Blues. Strong at the breakdown, the Englishman was a huge presence in the lineout.
With his typcially powerful tackling on full display, Lawes was called ashore after 53 minutes, a strong indication he is being put on ice for the second Test.
The Scot took his opportunity again on Tuesday, scoring twice to make him the Lions top try scorer on tour, with three. Offering great support play to Greig Laidlaw’s interception and break, he was there to benefit with a simple run in under the sticks.
The second half saw Seymour show some silky skills with a classy chip and chase after 47 minutes. Thereafter, the winger saw less ball as the Hurricanes surged back into the game.
All in all it was a strong showing from the Scot, the question now is whether he has done enough for Test consideration ahead of Anthony Watson.
Despite a couple of minutes of some questionable decision making following Henderson’s yellow card, the Welsh out-half gave a strong account of himself. His ball carrying and defensive work was superb against the Hurriances and his last gasp drop goal attempt to win the game could have been a highlight reel moment for the scrapbook.
While he has been playing as third-fiddle to Owen Farrell and Jonathan Sexton so far this tour, his performance in Wellington certainly boosted his Test credentials.
While he did not have any of the eye-catching moments some of his teammates enjoyed during the game, Tipuric was a real workhorse for the Lions. Always there to distrupt at the ruck, ready to forage for the ball at every given opportunity.
With just that kind of ambition and ability needed at the breakdown against the All Blacks, suddenly Sean O’Brien’s starting position in the Test XV doesn’t look so assured.
Despite forced into the centre due the Robbie Henshaw’s injury, North finally managed to showcase some of his immense power and ball carrying abilities. Scoring the easiest of tries thanks to a Henderson offload in the first, the Welshman almost made it two but for a foot in touch in the second half.
Showing some of the form that saw him feature as one of the standout members of the 2013 tour, North has left it late to put his hand up for the remaining All Blacks Test.
Better late than never, however, his hand is definitely up.
Notable others include the likes of CJ Stander, Jack Nowell, Joe Marler and Dan Cole, whose ambition and efforts were apparent but will likely go unrewarded. While they certainly asked a few questions, none really stood out enough to make that final push for the second Test.
Their names are, however, in the hat for a potential third Test. An injury or poor performance from a Test player could easily see any of these burst into the Test 23 for the final fixture of the 2017 tour on July 8th.
For the rest, this has likely been their final involvement.