The Welshman is a very fine man, a top leader and, at his best, a marauding flanker.
But at the moment he is a metre off his usual pace and at this level that loss of gas is catastrophic. No one has ever accused Warren Gatland of romanticism, so it will be a huge call if he includes his captain in the Friday (CI time) side on the strength of one try.
But at least Warburton is still standing. Modern rugby is so attritional that it was inevitable that bodies would start falling.
Malakai Fekitoa survived a head injury assessment on Monday night, which would have left those who know his history of concussion none too comfortable.
He was desperate to make a point and he made several, but his hopeless misjudgment on Lima Sopoaga’s cross kick at the start of the second half, gave Tommy Seymour a run in.
Was the head knock a factor? Happily, Courtney Lawes did leave the match for concussion after taking an horrendous blow to the side of his head.
The two most influential men were both on the Highlanders side. For a half Sopaga directed his team with a verve that Dan Biggar did not come close to matching. But a half won’t impress the All Blacks selectors. The errors in judgment that Sopoaga made in the opening 10 minutes of the second half were very costly.
Biggar is Warren Gatland’s selection, a Welshman off his best form who plays a percentage game. But he has not come close to the rugby that George Ford is capable of. The England first five languishing in Argentina where he guided a virtual B side to victory.
The other Highlander to stand out was Waisake Naholo. Poor Seymour did not know if he was coming or going. The Scotsman was beaten on the ground and in the air.
Naholo threatened to score almost every time he had the ball.
Seymour’s tour may well have been saved by that second half score, and that is just the sort of encouragement that the Lions dirt trackers will need.
Because sadly this match seems to have established who will be eating dirt for the rest of the tour. The Lions fumbled and missed tackles throughout the first half and at times were shambolic. Even their line speed paled with the side that beat the Crusaders.
The challenge for the dirt trackers now is to stay on tour mentally. That is a desperately hard thing to do and can make or break a tour. New Zealand is an unforgiving place for the disillusioned and the lonely. They must treat their remaining two games against the Chiefs and the Canes as a chance to level the midweek series.
At least the Lions scored tries and at least one of those scores resulted when a couple of their players actually committed a defender.
Ye Gods, we thought such things had been lost from northern hemisphere rugby - Mike Gibson and Barry John, look on their works and despair.
But we should be thankful for even these meagre crumbs of the bread of heaven. CJ Stander, who must surely be on the bench in the tests, took on one defender and then Biggar, with his best moment on tour, committed a second. It wasn’t wonderful, but in the context of the Lions it was wondrous.
The one question that the Lions and their supporters might legitimately ask is what on earth the TMO Marius Jonker has been up to in his ivory box.
He has now overseen six marginal decisions and every one has gone against the Lions. He allowed SBW’s try for the Blues to stand. He let the Blues take a scrum 7 metres further from their line than it should have been. Owen Farrell’s kick apparently did not go through the posts. Two potential Lions groundings were not given against the Highlanders in the first half. And then when Alex Ainsley blatantly obstructed Robbie Henshaw to open the space for Naholo’s try Jonker said there was no case to answer. The South African may well find himself wrong in that judgment.
- Stuff.co.nz/Mark Reason