Painful lack of ambition leaves Lions wounded
Australia 16 Lions 15
THIS WAS a salutary lesson for the Lions; disappointing only because it was so predictable after a week of bullish talk of wrapping the series up with a game to spare.
The Lions were outplayed, out-thought, out-coached and outclassed by a Wallaby side who clearly drew inspiration from the exaggerated words of ambition spoken by the Lions in the preceding week.
Warren Gatland attempted to put a positive spin on the outcome afterwards – "We're where we were before the game, one match away from a series victory" – but his words sounded a little hollow.
The momentum has swung very decidedly in Australia's favour. The series is level but after two games in which Australia have played the majority of the rugby and have looked the more composed and confident side, the feeling is that the Lions have blown their opportunity.
The tourists, riding high on the bravado of last weekend's first Test win, spoke all week of the determination to wrap things up on Saturday night. It was about as subtle as a brick thrown through a window.
Ambition is to be encouraged. Antagonising a team who were one kick away from victory despite suffering an injury crisis that would have crippled most other teams was plain dumb ... as was referencing a player's choice of studs as a reason for his missing that last kick.
Australia were improved on Saturday and even more obviously the better team, even if they didn't hit the heights. They trailed for much of the game, after all, but attacked with verve and with urgency and with consistency.
That they scored the only try of the game was evidence of that. They will be better for the experience of another game together. Their tactics next week will be the same as this –attack.
"Yes," answered Deans when quizzed about whether he will stick with his backline of playmakers. "They will be better next week for having played together on Saturday. That was the first time that group were on the paddock together. The combinations will be strengthened as a result."
Worryingly, the Lions don't have a lot to add to their roster, even though Gatland suggested there could be one or two familiar faces returning from injury.
If he is fit, it is probable Jamie Roberts will be restored to the midfield to partner Brian O'Driscoll, as that is clearly the Lions' first-choice partnership.
Mike Phillips will be available but after Gatland made it abundantly clear that his omission at the weekend was a selection decision and not as a result of his knee injury, surely Conor Murray will be afforded the chance to succeed where both Phillips and Ben Youngs failed in attempting to curb Will Genia?
The Australian scrum-half has been the stand-out performer in both Tests. Traditionally, the out-half is the playmaker and chief decision-maker. Australia have many playmakers but Genia is the one who calls the shots.
He dictates the pace of the Wallaby attack and he has a great ability to know when and where to pass the ball, irrespective of who is standing at first receiver. At least three times on Saturday he bypassed the first receiver in favour of a longer pass.
Those moments emphasised a confidence in Australia's play and in their players that doesn't seem to be there in the Lions camp. They also captured the mood of a team exercising a more positive game plan.
Indicative of the Lions' lack of authority at the end was the sight of Halfpenny looking for direction when they were awarded that final penalty in overtime. The place-ball expert behaved as if he did not want to take responsibility upon himself, and it actually looked as if kicking coach Neil Jenkins made the decision for him.
That moment perfectly captured what is wrong with the Lions' approach to these Tests. They are tentative, as if untrusting of their own abilities, and deep down you wonder if the Welsh players actually believe they can defeat Australia.
Too often in their recent past they have come up short when wearing their own bright red jerseys against the Wallabies. On the cusp of a famous victory on Saturday, they doubted themselves and panicked.
The Lions must now pick up the pieces of their damaged ambitions for Saturday's final Test.
"If we win it now it'll be in even more dramatic fashion," said captain Sam Warburton, but it's hard to see where they can go unless there is a dramatic shift in emphasis.
What is encouraging is that the Lions showed an ability to adapt from the first to the second Test in regard to their work at the breakdown – there was a dramatic improvement here.
It is concerning, though, that their scrum encountered so many problems, with Mako Vunipola constantly earning reprimands from the referee.
The importance the scrum is expected to play in next weekend's contest was obvious from the charm offensives of the respective coaches after Saturday's game.
"Romain (Poite) is probably the best adjudicator of scrummaging around," said Deans in reference to the decider's match official.
The Frenchman was one of the touch-judges for the first two Tests and takes over the whistling duties this weekend.
Gatland was also at his charming best – "Romain's had a good look at the last two games from his position on the touchline and he'll be on top of everything there," he said.
This series is up for grabs and is certainly not beyond the Lions. But, as much as anything, their lack of ambition in the type of game they are attempting to play must be addressed.
Australia were the more adventurous side on Saturday certainly. Yet it was important to emphasise that their generous amount of possession owed as much to the Lions' capacity to lapse into error as to their own attacking excellence.
The Lions blundered repeatedly to produce a maladroit performance that was uncharacteristically cavalier at key moments.
Brian O'Driscoll, usually the most careful on the pitch, threw one careless pass that almost opened the door for Israel Folau to score after he intercepted and there were another couple of knock-ons that the Ireland veteran will not be happy about.
The tendency to lapse into individual error saw Lions cough up a huge amount of possession.
Thankfully, his final attempt notwithstanding, the place-kicking of Halfpenny remains at the highest quality. He scored all 15 Lions points.
The Wallabies were also much improved in this facet, with Christian Leali'ifano matching the Welshman almost kick for kick for a 9-12 half-time score.
The Lions looked to have finally bridged that 16-year gap to their last series win when Halfpenny pushed them out to a 15-9 lead.
But with one flowing movement in the 75th minute, Genia, James O'Connor and Adam Ashley-Cooper combined to ruthlessly expose the Lions' frailty in defence for the game-changing touchdown. Leali'ifano added the extras and the Wallabies were back in the lead for the first time since the 27th minute.
Halfpenny could have stolen it at the death but it would have been an outrageous act of larceny had Australia been denied.
As a contest, it was painful to watch at times and even allowing for some moments of gorgeous skill, chances were scarce and open flowing rugby in short supply.
The Lions never threatened the Australian line, which highlights another deficiency in their set-up.
Do their coaches possess the wherewithal to break down what is a very mean Australian defence? It's doubtful, and unless they come up with something special this week the series will be gone from them.
Ominously, you just know that Australia will improve.
"We have a lot of attacking potential in our backline, a lot of firepower," said try-scorer Ashley-Cooper. "We will be better for that outing."
Australia – K Beale; I Folau, A Ashley-Cooper, C Leali'ifano, J Tomane; J O'Connor, W Genia; B Robinson (J Slipper 61), S Moore, B Alexander (S Fainga'a 59), K Douglas (S Kepu 53), J Horwill (capt), B Mowen, W Palu (L Gill 62), M Hooper.
Lions – L Halfpenny; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, J Davies, G North; J Sexton, B Youngs (C Murray 54); M Vunipola, T Youngs (R Hibbard 57), A Jones (D Cole 59), AW Jones, G Parling, D Lydiate, J Heaslip (S O'Brien 65), S Warburton (capt, T Croft 67).
Ref – C Joubert (SA)