Australia squeezed out a razor-thin victory over the Lions in a dramatic second Test in Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium tonight.
With just three minutes remaining in the match and the Lions leading by six the Wallabies suddenly exploded into life and ripped a hole through the Lions’ defence for the game’s only try…a decisive score at that stage of the contest.
For once Will Genia and his young out-half James O’Connor were in perfect synch as they attacking the Lions’ line. O’Connor drifted left and just as he was about to be wrapped up by the advancing Brian O’Driscoll he spun the ball over his left shoulder.
Adam Ashley-Cooper came through with the force of a runaway refridgerator and charged through the hole between Jonathan Davies and Tommy Bowe.
It was a seminal moment in a contest that had, at times, been painful to watch such was the dearth of quality rugby being played. This was a game of tactics and kickers. Neither side was overly committed to rucking and the scrum was a mess.
Australia looked have a decided advantage in the set-piece even after they fell behind to a Leigh Halfpenny penalty after nine minutes and they sought to make this advantage count by forcing scrums at every juncture.
Even in the early exchanges the difference between this and last week was evident. Christian Leali-ifano lasted beyond the opening minute and Australia were benefitted from his more accurate right boot.
During the week he outlined his place-kicking philosophy as ‘put it down and stick it between the posts mate’. He didn’t disappoint.
But perhaps the biggest change was in the scrum. Australia had been second best in this facet for the opening 50 minutes last week. They finished that game on top and continued with on this vein with the early engagements.
The Lions hoped they had reached a turning point in the first half in the 26th minute. By then Lions’ loosehead prop Mako Vuniploa was a marked man in referee Craig Joubert’s eyes. In the previous three scrums he had penalised him for “dropping his head and shoulders”.
Something needed to give.
As if a light-bulb suddenly went off the Lions’ scrum began to do to the Australians what the Australians had been doing to them in the scrum. Instead of holding steady on the “set” the Lions’ hit through.
They won two penalties in the next two scrums and Leigh Halfpenny rewarded their efforts with six points.
Unfortunately this resurgence didn’t continue into the second half. On the first scrum engagement the Wallabies forced another penalty from Vunipola and the fear was this beasting of the Lions’ front row would decide the game.
Credit the Lions for their resilience as they fought back and the introduction of Conor Murray in the 54th minute helped lift the Lions and his box kicking was immediately seen to be clever and effective. The Lions looked more structured and balanced as he called the shots and with Sean O’Brien being introduced in the 65th minute, the Irish involvement stood at five – although why the excellent Jamie Heaslip was sacrificed is a mystery.
Warren Gatland also called changes in his front row and they worked so well that the Lions demolished Australia in a scrum near the half-way line in the 63rd minute. Again Halfpenny showed his remarkable skill to stretch the Lions lead out to 15-9.
The Australians were always likely to rally. They did and after marching into the Lions’ 22 they broke for Cooper-Simpson’s try. When Leali’ifano converted for the one point advantage it looked to be game over.
There was one final twist and when the Lions were awarded a penalty on 80 minutes the word came from the TMO that they didn’t have time to kick to touch and take the line-out. Brian O’Driscoll, captain at this stage, realised as much and the Lions ran the ball.
Further drama ensued a couple of phases later when the Lions were awarded a second penalty right on the half-way line.
Halfpenny had the opportunity to be the hero but it was just out of his range and when Genia collected the ball as it dropped under the posts he booted it out of bounds to force this game to a third and deciding Test back in Sydney next weekend.