Callow defeat damages pride of Lions
ACT Brumbies 14 Lions 12
This was a dose of reality for the Lions, a salutary lesson that was totally predictable and avoidable.
How could you expect to draft in several players at a moment's notice and look to defeat any serious opposition?
The timing of this dreadful performance was unfortunate, coming just four days before their first Test game against Australia. Clearly coach Warren Gatland set as a priority the protection of his preferred Test players, but the risk is the negative reverberations from this defeat will impact on the squad.
The tourists, riding high on the bravado of facile victories over poor opposition, were outplayed at the Canberra Stadium by the Brumbies fighting hard to attain the admirable standards of old.
Twelve years ago, the Brumbies were denied a historic victory over the tourists by a late converted Austin Healy try. Jake White spoke openly about how he had tried to tap into that memory in the build-up to yesterday's game as extra motivation for his players.
They responded as he intended. Despite the rather churlish dismissal of their tactics by Warren Gatland – "they played no rugby after scoring the try" – the Brumbies were full value for their win and, in fact, the scoreline flatters the Lions.
The tourists were awful. They were second to the ball, were second best in the line-out, second best in the scrum, offered nothing in attack – Christian Wade looked particularly out of his depth – and were opened up with some ease for the game's opening try just six minutes into the contest.
"Defence is Andy Farrell's thing and he wasn't happy with us at half-time," said captain Rory Best. "We needed to be a lot tighter and he let us know that.
"It was a hugely disappointing night for us. We knew they were going to be strong and good and we just didn't front up. We spoke before the game about bettering their physicality and intensity. We didn't even match it," said Best.
The Lions blundered repeatedly to produce a maladroit performance that marked a low for a tour that has been remarkable only for the lack of adequate opposition they have faced.
Yesterday they took on the best team in Australia outside of the national side and came off second best. A big worry from the Lions' perspective is that the Brumbies were missing 12 of their starting team, including most of their internationals.
The bigger worry is that this will adversely affect the confidence of the squad as the collective prepare for Saturday's opening Test in Brisbane.
"I don't know what effect it will have," said a clearly chastened Gatland.
"We'll know on Saturday I guess. There are some positives to take from the game. It developed into a battle of the breakdown for 75 minutes after the try. We came off second best there but I thought our bench contributed well and we kept trying right until the end and were unlucky not to force the turnaround."
So what went wrong? What strange potion was consumed so the Lions' concentration was diluted, their application weakened?
The Lions first-half performance was so low-key it was surprising. Their play lacked passion and intensity. There was no real drive or energy about their football.
This was all the more mystifying as Gatland had said before the game there were still places up for grabs in the Test team. It appeared as if the players had not taken that on board.
The Brumbies were sharp and positive in contrast. They were first to the breakdown, flooded the rucks with players when they were on the drive and after the opening 10 minutes, they dictated the terms of the contest. The Lions clearly lacked the tools to deal with the ferocity of the Brumbies in this facet.
Their No 8 and captain Peter Kimlin was particularly impressive in this regard and when he blew Justin Tipuric on to his backside when clearing a ruck in the second half, it spoke volumes about the focus of the two teams.
The speed of their defensive line was also admirable and the Lions were unable to get their three-quarters into motion in any balanced or effective way. The centre-pairing of Billy Twelvetress and Brad Barritt were not helped by the interminably slow ball being presented by scrum-half Ben Youngs.
The English scrum-half was dire. His work at the breakdown in freeing ball was clumsy and he spent the entire game moaning to the referee instead of taking matters into his own hands.
His delivery was so slow that the Brumbies were able to get to the Lions centres quickly and effectively as they cut out supply to any strike-runners who might have been coming from deep.
Truthfully, the Lions were compromised by schoolboy errors. Too often their defensive kicks afforded the Brumbies the opportunity to field the ball on the touchline and drive them back with quick throw-ins.
The Lions were inconsistent out of touch and, overall, the Brumbies were full value for their half-time lead.
"We were disappointed at half-time," said Gatland.
"We just didn't have the urgency and intensity. We got a bit better in the second half but we were disappointed. The Brumbies played well and frustrated us and it was a tough day at the office."
After 60 minutes Gatland decided to send in the cavalry and the match was transformed. Suddenly the Lions were energised and driven.
There was a focus to their work that had been missing earlier, a commitment to winning the collisions that had not been in evidence.
In this regard, Conor Murray's introduction was crucial. He brought an urgency that was sorely absent in Youngs' performance. Suddenly, the Lions out-half – Owen now Farrell – was being afforded front-foot ball and the game began to open up.
"I thought the reaction after half-time was positive," said Gatland.
"The guys who came off the bench were good. We brought a lot more intensity to the game in the second half and we reacted pretty positively to the disappointment of the first half."
So what now for the Lions? Is this loss enough to unsettle and disrupt the whole tour? And what will be the consequence for those players who were either obviously out of their depth or were simply so off-form that they probably played themselves out of contention for Saturday.
And what of the Irish? Murray emerged as the most influential and his stock must surely be on the rise in contrast to Youngs.
Rob Kearney will also benefit from the outing and probably did enough for the management to take a leap of faith and include him among the replacements. Simon Zebo had a couple of good moments off the bench and is in a strong position to be included in the Test squad, particular if George North loses his fitness race, although the Welsh winger's prospects are improving.
Elsewhere, Dan Cole has also seen off any challenge from Matt Stevens as back-up tighthead to Adam Jones, while Best's problems with accuracy out of touch – the Lions lost eight line-outs – has ruled him out of contention for this weekend.
"We'll go back this evening and start thinking about it," said Gatland when queried about his Test selection. "We'll have a look at the tape and then start to put together a side to take on Australia on Saturday."
Whatever the selection, it is unlikely that Gatland's first team will suffer the same malaise as last night's combatants.
For starters, there will be a marked step up in standard among the backs while it is highly unlikely the line-out will malfunction as poorly with Paul O'Connell calling the shots.
But still the experience should not be dismissed simply as 'one of those things'. This was a genuine game of rugby in which the opposition forgot about the 'occasion' and played to win. They did so impressively and the Lions came up short.
That's a sobering reality three days out from the opening Test in Brisbane.
Brumbies – J Mogg, H Speight, T Kuridrani, A Smith (Z Holmes 70), C Rathbone (R Coleman 72), M Toomua, I Prior, R Smith, S Siliva (J Mann-Rea 57), S Sio, L Power (J Smiler 68), S Carter, S Fardy, C Faingaa, P Kinlin.
LIONS – R Kearney, C Wade, B Barritt, B Twelvetrees, S Williams (S Zebo 68), S Hogg (O Farrell 60), B Youngs (C Murray 60), R Grant A Corbisiero 57), R Best (R Hibbard 57), M Stevens (D Cole 57), I Evans (G Parling (60), R Gray, S O'Brien (D Lydiate (60), J Tipuric, T Faletau.
REF – J Garces, FFR.
Good night for
1. Jake White
The Brumbies coach has just shown Australia that he knows how to beat the Lions and, in so doing, has thrown down the gauntlet to Wallaby coach Robbie Deans. White wants Deans' job and this win is a massive bargaining chip.
Lions' momentum has been derailed. Their attempt at a 100pc record is in smithereens and the extent of the damage won't be fully known until the first Test next Saturday. This result is a massive fillip to Australia.
3. Those not playing
The players who were rested from this game have their reputations still intact. Sometimes your stock goes up when you don't play!
Bad night for
1. Warren Gatland
His experiment with Shane Williams back-fired. His call-ups didn't repay the faith shown in them. The chance of a 100pc record has been erased and in the week of a Test, their momentum has been slowed. Only time will tell if it's been derailed.
2. Rory Best
His inaccuracy out of touch was again the stand-out feature of his performance. This should have been one of the crowning highlights of his career, but instead it is the game when he played himself out of consideration for the first Test at least.
3. Ben Youngs
His feed was slow, his work at freeing the ball at the breakdown was inadequate and the step-up in the Lions' back play was evident when Conor Murray and Owen Farrell were introduced. Murray must be a strong contender for the bench now.