WARREN Gatland has defended his use of his bench after the British and Irish Lions were forced to settle for a 31-31 draw against the Hurricanes in their final midweek encounter.

The tourists led 23-7 at half-time and 31-17 ahead of the hour but when a second George North try was chalked off for a foot in touch and the impressive Iain Henderson was shown a yellow card, the hosts stormed back in Wellington.

A pair of converted tries levelled the score and both sides failed to grasp chances for a late winner with Dan Biggar’s drop goal after the hooter falling agonisingly short.

Callum Gibbins, Ngani Laumape, Wes Goosen and Vaea Fifita all crossed for the hosts, with Tommy Seymour grabbing a brace either side of a North effort.

However, the Lions were flagging at the death after Gatland opted to leave his replacements – including Dragons lock Cory Hill – on the bench.

The head coach had been criticised for calling up Hill, hooker Kristian Dacey, props Allan Dell and Tomos Francis, scrum-half Gareth Davies and fly-half Finn Russell because of their proximity to the touring party.

Dell featured as a blood replacement against the Chiefs last week while Russell had a short spell on while Biggar had a head injury assessment today.

Gatland’s reasoning was that the six were just there to protect the Test candidates.

“Those players were called out as cover to protect as many as Test 23 as could,” said the head coach. “I know a lot has been made of that. We didn’t want to expose possible members of Test 23.

“So much was made of devaluing the jersey that we decided we would try and get through the game with as many of starting XV staying on as could.

“So much was made of that, you understand people’s views, we made the collective decision that they would be just HIA or injury replacements.”

As galling as the late collapse was, it’s all about Saturday and on that front locks Lawes and Iain Henderson did their Test chances no harm with energetic displays, although the Ulsterman’s yellow did allow the Hurricanes back into the game.

The Lions entered Wellington's 'Cake Tin' Westpac Stadium in bullish mood then, keen to vent some frustrations - but let the golden opportunity for victory slip away at the death.

Aggressive defence paid dividend from the off as the Lions pounced for first blood, Greig Laidlaw racing for an intercept before popping up to the onrushing Seymour.

The Scotland wing outstripped the cover and dived between the posts, with Biggar's conversion adding to his earlier penalty for a 10-0 lead.

Ireland centre Henshaw's night was shortly over as he trudged off with that shoulder problem, forcing the Lions into a backline reshuffle with Halfpenny at 15 and North slotting in at inside centre.

A second Biggar penalty edged the Lions further ahead, before the Hurricanes finally built some phases.

Openside flanker Gibbins shunted home after considered build-up, with Black's conversion leaving the Lions leading 13-7.

Biggar slotted his third penalty of the half after Ben May obstructed Laidlaw, and then the visitors struck again.

Wales fly-half Biggar improved his half still further by hoisting a high bomb that Halfpenny was just able to flick backwards.

The Lions stayed on the attack and in a flash Iain Henderson had put North over, with Biggar's conversion pushing the Lions ahead 23-7.

Savea finally found some footwork and space at the death of the half, only for Tipuric to slow the ball to kill the momentum.

The Lions rebuffed two penalty lineouts, and that was half-time.

The tourists could not deny the Hurricanes after the break however, with Savea scything through to send Laumape home for the hosts' second score.

Biggar took a heavy bang trying to deny Laumape, and was taken off for a Head Injury Assessment - drawing mid-tour reinforcement Finn Russell into the fray.

Biggar passed his head checks however, to return to action, and posted his fourth penalty of the night when Hurricanes scrum-half Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi was sin-binned for a high tackle.

Seymour quickly strolled in for his second try after good work from Nowell and Halfpenny, extending the Lions' lead to 31-17.

North thought he had scored a smart second, only for the try to be chalked off for a foot in touch.

Henderson's yellow card for dumping a player dangerously at a ruck gifted the Hurricanes the momentum and the hosts quickly struck through Wes Goosen. Barrett's conversion left the Lions leading just 31-24.

And when Fifita powered home, Barrett's conversion ensured the home side would steal the draw.