FINALLY the 2013 Lions tour kicked into life in Sydney tonight in a hugely physical game that tested every bit of the visitors.
But at what cost after Jamie Roberts limped off the field in the 67th minute with an apparent hamstring injury?
The physicality was enough to make the eyes water with the supporters wincing in sympathy with every hit. As the game developed it was clear that Michael Cheika’s midweek promise that his players would “hit everything in red” was not just empty rhetoric.
Jonathan Sexton was a particular target for the Waratahs’ players and was clearly singled out for “special treatment”. A particularly violent – and late - hit by second row behemoth Will Skelton in the lead up to Tom Carter’s try left the out-half needing treatment in the 15th minute.
This was after he had scored the game’s opening try with a gorgeous break just six minutes in. He was involved twice in the move as he initially got the line moving before looping around and taking the last pass from Jonathan Davies to touch-down in the corner.
The action rampaged up and down the field in the first half with the game exploding into action just 45 seconds after the start when but for a late foot in touch in the tackle Simon Zebo would have announced his presence with a try.
Zebo went on to have a fantastic game to press his claims for a starting Test berth. It is probable he will feature again on Tuesday night when a strong opening 40 might well convince Warren Gatland to take a punt on him for next Saturday’s assignment.
Some of the rugby played in the opening half was sumptuous. Soft hands were very much in evidence in the build-up to Leigh Halfpenny’s first try when Paul O’Connell offloaded with a delicacy that belies his size and reputation.
It was beautifully weighted pass that was so quick that had you blinked you would have missed it. It was indicative of the speed of some of the Lions’ play as they turned in their best performance of the Tour against their strongest opposition.
The Waratahs’, despite some clearly cynical play at times, contributed handsomely to the contest and were well worth their opening try on 10 minutes when Peter Betham passed inside his shoulder for the oncoming Tom Carter to get the touch-down.
Halfpenny’s try just on half time gave the Lions a comfortable 10-21 half time lead but they certainly hadn’t had it all their own way in the opening 40.
The second half was just as entertaining.
Leigh Halfpenny crashed over for his second try thanks to a gorgeous pass from Jonathan Davies, who surely inked his name into the Test line-up.
The game did take a darker turn with Carter’s second try for the Waratahs as television replays highlighted loose head prop Jeremy Tilse’s action of shoving his forearm into Jonathan Sexton’s throat as his team-mates made sure the out-half remained isolated.
It was a nasty move and it came as no surprise the Ireland out-half was replaced soon after with the opening Test in mind.
Tom Croft was next to get on the scoresheet, and possibly the Test team, when he showed a clean pair of heels to race clear before Jonathan Davies rounded off a fantastic performance with the fifth Lions’ try of the night.
This was just the type of game the Lions needed but it was not without a cost as the sight of Roberts limping off the field and down the tunnel clearly upset after apparently injuring his hamstring is hugely concerning ahead of the opening Test.
For the most part this will be a hugely beneficial outing for the Lions with some Test players surely emerging…not least Ireland’s Zebo!