Tuesday 20 March 2018

Strap in for journey of twists, turns and nerve-jangling drama

Beale's errant boot swung opener Gatland's way, but cool heads will decide series

Brian O’Driscoll has the look of a relieved man
Brian O’Driscoll has the look of a relieved man

Eddie Butler

It would appear that the next two weeks are not going to be easy on the nerves of the rugby-loving population. And even more demanding on the bodies of the players involved in this Test series.

On the opening day of what is going to be an epic for those that can stand the strain, Australia came off terribly in the injury stakes, losing Christian Leali'ifano within a minute, his replacement Pat McCabe not long after half-time, his original fellow centre Adam Ashley-Cooper and the utility back, Berrick Barnes, here chosen as a full-back.

The Wallabies, in one game, went through an entire cast of midfielders.

Their losses left them with a hole to plug. Michael Hooper, the openside wing forward, was a makeshift member of the defence that was parted by Alex Cuthbert, with a little bit of help from a blocking run from Brian O'Driscoll. The wing's try put the Lions 20-12 ahead and solidly in command.

The tourists had scrummaged well and had been secure if not adventurous at the lineout. Tom Youngs, the hooker, had been precise going short to Tom Croft and Jamie Heaslip with his throws, and had been immense with his tackling. George North had scored a one-man gem of a try, taking a long kick from Barnes and returning it with a vengeful strength that left McCabe, James O'Connor and Barnes in the wing's wake.

On the Australian side, in the few moments when they were not watching one of their own being carted off, there was Will Genia and Israel Folau, the guiding light at scrum-half and the bright new star on the wing. Genia was full of tricks, half a step ahead of his opposite number, Mike Phillips, and Folau scored two tries with a leggy, perfectly balanced insouciance that promises much for the two Tests that remain.

But at 20-12 up, the Lions were in charge. For a minute. They immediately conceded a penalty that O'Connor managed to land. That gave him a success rate of two from five, as compared with Leigh Halfpenny's three from four at that stage. The teams were level on tries, all scored by wings, but the Lions had their full-back, as safe on the soft surface of the Suncorp as on a dry carpet. Halfpenny may have been outjumped by Folau on one occasion, the diminutive Welshman yielding to the aerial experience of the giant Folau in Australian Rules, but he was having a game of unflappable excellence.

Australia had, thanks to that last success by O'Connor, clawed their way to within five points. The Lions then started ringing the changes, bringing on Dan Cole and Mako Vunipola for Adam Jones and Alex Corbisiero. The changes were early, at 50 minutes rather than the customary hour.

Heaslip then gave away a penalty for taking out Genia at the breakdown.

The kicking duties on the opposition side were transferred to Kurtley Beale, off the bench for Barnes, a player with a history of concussion, out cold again. Beale, with a history of brain disorder of his own – the influence of the alcohol – was in brilliant form, relaunching his career at this level with a series of runs and passes, and now with his place-kicking.

He landed his first kick and then a second, when Paul O'Connell gave away one of those penalties close to his line, where three points are an acceptable sacrifice. It was a good night for such sinners, because the referee, Chris Pollock, chose not to show any of them a yellow card.

In between the Beale penalties came one from Halfpenny, that put the gap at a paltry two points. It seemed enough because a choke-and-turn tackle by North on Digby Ioane put the Lions in an advantageous position five metres out. The scrum went badly and Genia came away with the ball. Beware the automatic recycling of props, may be one of the lessons of this first Test.

Shortly afterwards, Vunipola was penalised at the breakdown. Lesson underlined. Beale, confident, pumped and without hesitation, stepped forward and pushed his first miss way to the right. The first big let-off.

Then came the last scrum. Australia put on a healthy squeeze and the Lions were penalised. To lose the game at the very situation where they had established an advantage would have been unfortunate, to say the least. Up came Beale again, not far from halfway but more or less in front. As he took back his kicking right boot, his supporting left boot slipped on that soft top and the kick went low and left, and short.

It was a malfunctioning foot that ended it, but it will be heads that decide this series, heads that can sift through the issues of selection and stay calm in the stressful days ahead. May your own nerves survive the journey.


Irish Independent

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