The Lions staged a remarkable second-half comeback to claim a 28-23 victory over the Highlanders in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The Lions have shocked several of their more-fancied opponents in their backyard this season, and this match was no different. The homeside fought back from a 20-3 deficit at half-time as the introduction of replacement half-backs Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies swung things in their favour.
Both sides showed their attacking intent from the outset although the first half only came alive during its final five minutes – when the Highlanders scored two tries.
The Highlanders thought they had made a perfect start when Aaron Smith got over the whitewash from a ruck close to the Lions' tryline in the third minute. His effort was disallowed, however, after Patrick Osborne was penalised for holding back a Lions player in the build-up.
Marnitz Boshoff opened the scoring with a penalty in the 20th minute before Lima Sopoaga drew the visitors level with a three-pointer of his own from the kicking tee two minutes later.
Sopoaga put the Highlanders in front for the first time with a well-struck drop-goal in the 30th minute and when Gareth Evans rounded off a well-worked try in the right-hand corner five minutes later, the visitors looked set to make a perfect start to their South African tour.
On the brink of half-time the Highlanders extended their lead thanks to a moment of brilliance from Malakai Fekitoa. The Lions were on the attack just outside the visitors' 22 but the Highlanders secured a crucial turnover before the ball was shifted to the All Black midfielder, who outpaced several defenders from close to his 10-metre line before scoring his side's second try.
Sopoaga added the extras which gave the Highlanders a commanding lead at the break and he had a chance to extend the visitors' lead shortly after the break but his penalty attempt was inaccurate.
The Lions then brought on Jantjies and De Klerk for Boshoff and Ross Cronje, three minutes after the restart, and this changed the complexion of the match.
The new half-backs brought a new energy to the Lions' game and introduced direction to their attacking play. The changes made an immediate impact and after fine interplay between Courtnall Skosan and Andries Coetzee the winger scored the hosts' first try in the left-hand corner in the 45th minute.
The Highlanders struck back with a drop-goal five minutes later and with the score at 23-10, the visitors were still in control of proceedings.
That changed shortly afterwards, when Jaco Kriel scored the Lions' second try from a driving maul just outside the Highlanders' 22. And when Jantjies slotted the conversion, the Lions were trailing by less than a converted try.
Things went from bad to worse for the Highlanders when Harold Vorster crashed over for the hosts' third try in 61st minute and although he missed the conversion, two further penalties from Springbok pivot Jantjies in the final 10 minutes sealed a superb win for the hosts.
Tries: Skosan, Kriel, Vorster
Cons: Jantjies 2
Pens: Jantjies 2, Boshoff
Tries: Evans, Fekitoa
Cons: Sopoaga 2
Drop goals: Sopoaga, B Smith
Lions: 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Ruan Combrinck, 13 Harold Vorster, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Courtnall Skosan, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronje, 8 Warren Whiteley (c), 7 Warwick Tecklenburg, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Armand van der Merwe, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 Robert Kruger, 20 Ruaan Lerm, 21 Faf de Klerk, 22 Elton Jantjies, 23 Howard Mnisi.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Dan Pryor, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Mark Reddish, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Elliott Dixon, 20 John Hardie, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery
Referee: Craig Joubert