Sunday 24 September 2017

George Hook: This will be a hollow series victory if Lions don't improve

Only dreadful Australian kicking spared lumbering tourists from embarrassment

Our sequence of pictures shows Kurtley Beale running up to take Australia’s last-minute penalty before slipping just as he was about to kick the ball
Our sequence of pictures shows Kurtley Beale running up to take Australia’s last-minute penalty before slipping just as he was about to kick the ball
Our sequence of pictures shows Kurtley Beale running up to take Australia’s last-minute penalty before slipping just as he was about to kick the ball
Our sequence of pictures shows Kurtley Beale running up to take Australia’s last-minute penalty before slipping just as he was about to kick the ball

The Lions eked out a lucky victory at Suncorp Stadium against an injury-ravaged but still far superior Australian team. At all times, the Wallabies were more technically proficient and more inventive but failed in the mundane task of kicking the ball over the bar.

In the second half, the Lions, Alex Cuthbert's try apart, could not overcome opponents that finished the game with two scrum-halves and an open-side flanker in the back-line.

Warren Gatland's decision to bring a squad with just one inside centre was cruelly exposed as the Lions back-line barely fired a shot in attack and Jonathan Davies and Brian O'Driscoll never gelled as a midfield partnership.

The coach owed everything to the place-kicking of Leigh Halfpenny and the outstanding try-scoring talents of George North and Cuthbert.

In contrast, Robbie Deans will bemoan the 14 points missed by his place-kickers, James O'Connor and Kurtley Beale.

In the last minute, Beale had two kicks to win the match – one of which was entirely straightforward.

Much will be made of the interpretation of the breakdown by referee Chris Pollock, but he was entirely consistent throughout the 80 minutes – the Lions would have had adequate warning of his style and should have adjusted.

In true New Zealand fashion, his entire focus was to provide a quick, open game, which is part and parcel of Super Rugby. Just because O'Driscoll and others are allowed to compete on the ground in the Six Nations does not make it right.

The most influential player on the field by a mile was Wallaby scrum-half Will Genia who was simply magnificent in every phase of the game and made Mike Phillips look like a club player.

Genia consistently prompted the players around him to run superb angles off his passes which constantly got them over the gainline, but the Lions' scramble defence held out.

At times, even the Australian prop forwards looked to be more skilful than the majority of their opponents.

I must confess that for much of the match I concentrated less on the contest and focused on the wellbeing of the young men who literally risked life and limb in the cause of sport.

Christian Leali'ifano, Berrick Barnes and Pat McCabe received injuries that could have been career-ending and, worse still, were a miracle away from spending the rest of their lives in a wheelchair.

The rugby authorities will soon have a game that watching parents would question whether their children should play.

The Lions now face some stark selection choices. The first-choice prop forwards, Adam Jones and Alex Corbisiero (injury permitting), will have to play 80 minutes as the replacements Makovina Vunipola and Dan Cole cannot scrummage.

Cole could have cost his team the match as he was directly responsible for the Lions losing a vital scrum in front of the Wallaby posts and then gave away the penalty that could have ended the match.

Gatland also faces a tough call in the back-row where Sam Warburton and Tom Croft were completely outplayed by their opposite numbers and, at times, Jamie Heaslip seemed to be the only functioning part of the unit. The kicking from the hand by both teams was by and large deplorable and two of the four tries came from loose kicks.

Mike Phillips was the primary culprit as almost every box kick was far too long. Only Jonny Sexton for the Lions displayed any control and his Garryowens and dinks were invariably on the money.

Similarly for the home team, only Genia seemed to have a clear idea what he was doing with his kicking.

While it is early in the tour to make a real assessment, this looks to be a very average Lions team dominated on and off the field by Welsh conservative thinking.

Two tours to Australia have now been coached by New Zealanders. One has to question whether that mental approach is in tune with the great traditions of the touring side.

The apologists will blame the referee and the brevity of the preparation time. For 100 years, the Lions had to soldier on against home referees; now it is a question of interpretation.

Pollock was poor, but the visitors were authors of their own misfortune. The truth of the matter is that they were inferior in the majority of positions on the field.

Without the contribution of the front five and the back three and the contributory negligence of the Australian kickers, this match would have been an embarrassment.

Rugby union in Australia is a minority sport struggling for survival. This has led to a game based on outstanding individual skills and a keen appreciation of attacking back play. In contrast, in the northern hemisphere where the game is prospering, the quality of performance has diminished to 'win at all cost' levels.

It is unlikely that this Australian team, having suffered injuries akin to the casualty figures in the trenches of World War I, can possibly save this series. Unless there is a marked improvement in standard of play of the Lions, it will be a hollow series victory.

Irish Independent

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