Sunday 21 January 2018

Lions draw first blood in epic duel


George North crosses for the Lions’ opening try.
George North crosses for the Lions’ opening try.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The biggest rugby game in the short history of this fine stadium and appropriately it drew its biggest ever crowd. After a beautifully warm day in Brisbane, almost 53,000 turned up on a night where the temperature outside Suncorp had cooled, in direct contrast to the searing heat inside the four walls. Lions Tests are not always special affairs, despite what the storybook would have you believe. Sometimes they are plain hard to watch, as for example in New Zealand in 2005. This was a classic though, explosive from the start and then, in keeping with the script which changed from chapter to chapter, it came down to the last kick of the game.

Had Kurtley Beale succeeded with his penalty from a little more than 45 metres – he had missed with an easier shot six minutes earlier – it would have been a special event in itself given that he was a late addition to the squad two weeks ago after a spell in rehab. He was on the field as a replacement himself, after Christian Leali'ifano's debut ended after being knocked out inside two minutes.

The Wallabies finished with a flanker in the centre and a scrumhalf on the wing. Their most painful experience however was in putting the ball over the black spot. Between outhalf James O'Connor, who of course is not an outhalf, and Beale who took over from him, Australia missed five of nine shots on goal for a grand total of 14 points down the pan.

And still they brought it down to a one-kick game? If the result was what the tourists needed, then it was good for the series as well. And after the stuttering few weeks to this tour, both sides needed an edge-of-the-seat job to keep the show on the road.

You might think it ironic that is was a scrum penalty that nearly put the Lions in the ditch at the end. Having talked up their efficiency in this area, and then backed it up by shunting the Wallabies back metres at an early engagement for a penalty, they were hanging on here at the end. The replacement front-row, led by Dan Cole, were a pale imitation of the one that went off in the third quarter.

While the scrum was a talking point, thankfully it wasn't the lead item on the news. Rather the stunning athleticism of Australia's debutant and man of the match Israel Folau – completing a unique hat-trick of League, Rules and now Union at the highest level – and George North stole the show. Folau sickened the tourists after just 13 minutes when he finished a quick penalty move started by Will Genia for an 80-metre try, which came after New Zealand referee Chris Pollock decided that a few phases with about five metres gained was enough of a plus for the Lions who were playing out a penalty advantage.

His second came five metres before half-time, after another poor box kick by the unimpressive Mike Phillips. Jonny Sexton was the last man standing when Folau bore down on him. "I tried to show him one way – the outside – and took me on the inside," Sexton said, with a smile which suggested that any side would have been acceptable to the new boy. "Yeah, I got stood up. When you give someone of that size and that speed the space that we gave him it's pretty hard to stop him."

North and Alex Cuthbert did damage too though, albeit the latter in much less impressive fashion. North made a stunningly successful counter off a loose kick by Berrick Barnes to put the Lions ahead 10-7 – Leigh Halfpenny, who slotted five from six, had opened their account – and he had another effort ruled out for an elbow in touch.

Cuthbert's effort would have resulted in a court martial if he didn't finish successfully, for he had a man outside him. It came on 49 minutes and was born of Australia's injury woes: with Michael Hooper shifted to centre after Barnes went off, the Lions attacked him at the first opportunity and Cuthbert was the beneficiary. Having led 13-12 at half-time that put them 20-12 ahead, you could see them having a handy enough finish.

But then the cavalry started riding to the wrong battle. Beale knocked over two penalties to Halfpenny's one to make it 23-21 going down the home straight where the Aussies got lost. They suffered an extraordinary set of circumstances which combined to leave them a close second, trailing the Lions just about everywhere bar the penalty count where they offered up only seven as against 12 by the Lions.

All of which goes to show how efficient the tourists were when it really mattered. It would have been worse had referee Pollock gone harder on the offside line, but then the Lions had the hump with him for lots of reasons, not all of them justified. It was a cracking start to what we hope will be a memorable series.

Australia: B Barnes (K Beale 39); I Folau, A Ashley-Cooper (N Phipps 77), C Leali'ifano (P McCabe 2; L Gill 48)), D Ioane; J O'Connor, W Genia; B Robinson (J Slipper 69), S Moore, B Alexander (S Kepu 58), K Douglas (R Simmons 69), J Horwill (capt), B Mowen, W Palu, M Hooper

Lions: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, B O'Driscoll, G North; J Sexton, M Phillips (B Youngs 61); A Corbisiero (M Vunipola 52), T Young (R Hibbard 66)s, A Jones (D Cole 52), AW Jones (G Parling 71), P O'Connell, T Croft (D Lydiate 73), J Heaslip, S Warburton (capt)

Referee: C Pollock (NZ)

Irish Independent

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