Thursday 22 February 2018

Healy 'bite' allegation leaves sour taste after cakewalk

Western Force 17, Lions 69

Jamie Heaslip (L) is tackled by Matt Hodgson
Jamie Heaslip (L) is tackled by Matt Hodgson
Conor George

Conor George

What looked to be heading for a great night to be Irish in Perth threatened to turn into a disaster for one player – Cian Healy – and cast a dark shadow over this convincing Lions victory.

Compelling performances from try-scorers Brian O'Driscoll (with two), Johnny Sexton, Jamie Heaslip and Tommy Bowe made it a Lions triumph that had a very distinct green hue to it, but the overriding fear is that Healy's Australian voyage is at an end.

Apart from the serious-looking ankle injury Healy sustained, the controversial complaints that the Leinster prop had bitten scrum-half Brett Sheehan and the allegation that Conor Murray had stamped on Ed Stubbs (a claim already dismissed) left a black cloud over this whole episode.

Healy departed the scene in obvious pain after just 35 minutes with the physios handling his damaged ankle very gingerly.

While the diagnosis was not as serious as was initially feared, his continued participation in the tour is in doubt, with Alex Corbisiero already being summoned from England's tour of Argentina

Healy's injury troubles might, of course, be overtaken by other events as the player faces a disciplinary committee in Brisbane today (10.30am Irish time) for allegedly biting Western Force scrum-half Sheehan.

Were he to be found guilty – and he is strongly refuting the claim – Healy will be hit with a suspension that will bring his tour to a premature end in any case.

For now, the more pleasant task here is to highlight the impact that Ireland's clutch of players made against a team that was beaten in all phases of the game.

And for O'Driscoll, who captained the team, it was a triumphant return to Perth, where he played his first game for the Lions and announced his genius to the world in 2001.

The day's captain was superb in the midfield and his combination with Sexton at out-half lit up the stadium.

COMPOSED

Sexton showed the full impressive range of his varied skills and dictated the game for over an hour with a composed and confident performance that underlined just how important he is going to be for the Lions in the Tests.

His understanding with his Leinster colleagues O'Driscoll, Sean O'Brien and Heaslip was very evident and the subtle variation they injected into attack reflected their smooth work with Leinster over the years.

Tommy Bowe also showed a sharp appreciation of Sexton's modus operandi and his incursions into the line were effective.

O'Driscoll is not one for being carried away with the headlines and was so relaxed as to be almost horizontal after the game.

"I did some things well and some things not so well," he stated. "I benefited from some good breaks by players but I had one or two stray passes too.

"Look, we'll benefit from the game. I'm happy without being carried away. It was good to get a blow-out tonight."

Despite not being charged with the kicking duties from the tee – Warren Gatland confirmed afterwards Sexton was annoyed – the out-half all but cemented his place in the Test team with a very strong performance that maximised the talents outside him.

Sexton stood very flat and encouraged his outside backs to take good lines off him and he broke strongly too whenever the opportunity presented itself.

From an Irish perspective his performance was only eclipsed by the enduring excellence of O'Brien and his room-mate this past week, Heaslip. O'Brien was delighted to have a winning start to his Lions career. "Putting on the jersey was a big thing and I'll never forget this night," said O'Brien.

"There were a lot of things going through my mind putting it on; there is a lot of tradition you're putting on, and with the lads winning last week we wanted to put in a good performance and kick on. They will want to do the same again on Saturday and if some of us are involved we will want to row in and keep building and building to the first Test."

It is sobering to hear a player of O'Brien's reputation talk so openly and honestly about how much wearing the jersey for the first time means to him – "you know what the jersey is about and the people who have worn it before you" – and he is using that as motivation in what is a very competitive position.

"If you have a bad performance there are six other lads waiting to take your place. That sharpens your mind. I was very aware of this being my first Lions game but now we'll move on to the next one and move forward again. It was a good evening and I'm delighted with the win.

"It's what I'll most take out of the night – a winning start to my Lions career."

Aside from one sluggish period when the Force really started to challenge the Lions in the scrum and scored a couple of breakaway tries – "we'll look at our defence there," said coach Andy Farrell – this was clearly a mismatch.

Western Force have prioritised their fixture against the Waratahs at the weekend and rested a number of their regular first-team players in anticipation of that local derby. As a consequence the final result was never in doubt.

It was still a very useful workout for the Lions players, particularly for O'Brien, whose performance has surely heaped further pressure on tour captain Sam Warburton, who has yet to feature as he continues his rehab from a knee injury.

If Justin Tipuric stole a march on his Wales team-mate with his strong showing against the Barbarians, then O'Brien will have added to the captain's discomfort.

"I'm not thinking about it like that," said O'Brien. "I'm thinking about doing my own thing. Whether or not how I play and mix things up fits into a Test back-row or not is a different story. I have to concentrate on what I'm doing.

"Obviously Sam is there and he'll hopefully play this weekend. We'll see what happens from there."

For the record, eight different Lions players scored the tries against Western Force. Four Irish players shared in five, with O'Driscoll claiming the brace, while Leigh Halfpenny kicked the lights out with 11 successful kicks from 11 attempts.

The Lions are certain have a tougher examination of their credentials against the Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Saturday but, the worry over Healy's citing and injury aside, this was a positive night out for the tourists.

WESTERN FORCE – S Christie; D Haylett-Petty (J Rasolea, 73), E Stubbs, C Tuatara-Morrison, C Brown (N Haining, 62); S Norton-Knight, B Sheehan (A Mathewson, 73); S Manu, J Hilterbrand, S Ma'afu (S Kolo, 50); T Lynn (T Metcher, 66), P Battye; A Cottrell (L McCaffrey, 53), M Hodgson (capt), R Brown.

LIONS – L Halfpenny; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), M Tuilagi, G North; J Sexton (O Farrell, 67), C Murray (B Youngs, 67); C Healy (M Vunipola, 36), R Best (T Youngs, 61), D Cole (M Stevens, 68); A W Jones, I Evans (G Parling, 61); T Croft (T Faletau, 71), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

REF – G Jackson (New Zealand)

Irish Independent

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