Aussies' late push tames Lions
Australia 16-15 Lions
It was an ordinary Test match but of extraordinary tension, saved by a black-ball finish. And if when you watched the Wallabies celebrate Leigh Halfpenny's short penalty kick as if it was the end of the series, then maybe it's because they think that's just what it is. The Lions are heading to Noosa and some Queensland sunshine for a few days to regroup, but it will be a remarkable regeneration if they can recharge the batteries sufficiently to win in Sydney on Saturday.
In the preview of this game we looked long at the lineout, a phase where, pre-tour, Warren Gatland had hoped to get top-of-the-range ball to launch his big and powerful backs. Fearing just that, the Wallabies opted to give them free passage to ball at the front rather than have to fight fires that were ignited at the middle or the tail.
So, with just over two minutes left in front of a record crowd of 56,771 at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne's Docklands, the Lions were presented with a lineout 30 metres from Australia's line. Significantly, this had come as a gift from James O'Connor, who had forgotten that his clearing kick from his own '22' needed to stay in play given that it had been taken back in. In the circumstances, it was a monumental error.
"These are intense battles and they come down to one tiny moment," the impressive Wallaby captain James Horwill said afterwards. He was referring more to Halfpenny's kick than O'Connor's, so maybe there were a few moments in the mix. In any case, it was Horwill who plonked himself at the front of this monumentally important lineout, presenting an unappealing obstacle to replacement hooker Richard Hibbard.
How the Lions longed for an open gate at the front at that moment – they could drive it and drop it and appeal for a penalty from referee Craig Joubert. And the excellent Halfpenny would have been shooting from comfortably inside his range rather than about five metres outside it, as he was with that final effort.
Had that little scenario played out then the series would have been sorted and, for the second week running, the Wallabies would have left behind them a game they should have won. Instead, they won the lineout and stayed alive, and they fully deserved it. Robbie Deans was understandably delighted as his team had been presented with a steep climb at the finish, needing a converted try to win in a game that hadn't come close to offering up a touchdown to that point, and they went and did it, complete with Christian Leali'ifano nailing the conversion under huge pressure.
It wasn't that hard for Australia to back themselves at that point. Four minutes earlier, they had a scrum in the same position, about 10 metres to the right of the sticks and 10 metres out, and when it collapsed you expected them to claim the penalty, and three points, and come back for more in the time remaining.
Rather they went for the kill, and, while it didn't come immediately, the more phases they racked up the more tired the Lions looked. In the end it was appropriate that Adam Ashley-Cooper drifted wide of Jonathan Davies, and then straightened perfectly to score, for he is a senior player who fulfills the description.
"We're in the same situation now that we were this morning – with a Test series up for grabs," Lions captain Sam Warburton said. Eh, only on paper Sam. The captain had been magnificent, as was Dan Lydiate, but Warburton is now hamstrung to some extent so his availability for Sydney is an issue.
So is the way the Lions are playing, or at least how they played here. Success would have been acclaimed as a great defensive effort but they came to Australia to play rugby and not just defend. At half-time, it had served them just about okay for they were 12-9 ahead, and the Wallabies had conceded nine penalties – which would be just above what most teams would hope to give away over the course of 80 minutes. It started off badly for the home team at the breakdown, where Craig Joubert certainly had a different take to Chris Pollock last weekend in Brisbane, and spread to the maul where they again looked vulnerable.
But, once they made serious efforts to get Israel Folau into the game in the second half, instead of feeding him the odd cross-kick, the Lions were struggling to cope. Indeed all the tourists had to offer was the shooting of Halfpenny, who was five from six before being handed the longest kick of the night, and the one he had missed first up had come back off the bar. You need a bit more than that to win a series.
At the scrum you didn't know who would get the penalty. Mako Vunipola, who was lucky to stay on the field after flooring Ashley-Cooper with an elbow off the ball, conceded three penalties at the scrum, but had a fine game nonetheless. Joubert was reduced to hassling the two Lions scrumhalves to either feed a moving scrum, or clear the ball with Will Genia already offside, just to get away from there without blowing his whistle again.
Despite the Lions' limitations, when Halfpenny put them 15-9 ahead on 63 minutes, their supporters in the packed house roared like it was deliverance day. For the remaining 16 minutes they hardly got a look-in. They could get no traction across the middle where none of Jonny Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll or Jonathan Davies were as effective as last week. And that left them hoping that Halfpenny would be able to keep them hanging on. It's fingertip stuff now.
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).
Referee: C Joubert (SA)