Wednesday 13 December 2017

Tony Ward: 'Take them in any order you wish, Sexton, O'Driscoll, O'Connell and Heaslip were outstanding'

Jamie Heaslip chases down Australia’s Will Genia during the Lions’ opening test victory in Brisbane on Saturday
Jamie Heaslip chases down Australia’s Will Genia during the Lions’ opening test victory in Brisbane on Saturday

Three weeks of posturing and then this. Meaningful rugby came back with a bang at Suncorp Stadium as a record crowd, allied to a worldwide television audience numbering many millions, were treated to a pure humdinger.

By any standards, this was the real deal. An inter-hemisphere Test that had everything, not least the outcome being in doubt right up to the last kick of the match. It was riveting stuff, compulsive viewing from first minute to last.

How Warren Gatland deemed it "not a particularly good game" is almost beyond comprehension. But we'll forgive him his less-than-objective judgment and give the head coach and his team the credit they deserve for getting out of jail with this opening Test win.

It might be a tad unfair to suggest that the better team lost, but, had Kurtley Beale landed either of those late kicks at goal, the Lions could have had no complaints whatsoever.

Most worryingly for Gatland was the manner in which they drifted from cruise control at 20-12 up and the Wallaby backline in tatters, to almost blowing what seemed a certain win, at the death.


Far from adding impact off the bench and closing out the game, the arrival of all five replacement forwards, plus scrum-half Ben Youngs from the 52nd minute on, had the reverse effect.

The brave and beleaguered Wallabies upped the ante, got on top up front and, in the end, it was the tourists hanging on for dear life. Whether they deserved it or not is a moot point – the fact is that they are now, as in 2001, 80 minutes away from a first Test series win since South Africa in 1997.

Into the mix add the return to fitness of Tommy Bowe, Manu Tuilagi and possibly Jamie Roberts, while the Wallabies through injury and through in-house fighting (Quade Cooper), appear in tatters as the countdown to Melbourne begins.

I admire Robbie Deans' hard-line stance in relation to Cooper's alleged behaviour, but desperate situations sometimes demand desperate measures. Pride should be put on hold in the national interest.

James O'Connor was not the cause of Saturday's defeat for the home side, but a talented and versatile footballer measured against a near-complete game-running out-half in Jonathan Sexton makes for something of a mismatch.

From what I'm told, Deans – by dint of his personality – won't do the obvious and restore the most naturally talented out-half available in Cooper to the team. Sometimes needs must and, with the Wallabies on the precipice in Melbourne next week, the need has never been greater.

Take them in any order you wish, Sexton, Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell – let's hope the fitness rumours are exaggerated – and Jamie Heaslip were outstanding in Brisbane. It staggers me how the work carried out off the ball by these four fails to register with so many of those charged with assessing performance.

Heaslip has had a difficult time as captain of Ireland, but his work ethic has never lapsed.

If fit, there is every chance Bowe could increase the Irish representation for the second test to five with the Monaghan man cut entirely from the same cloth as his compatriots as far as hard work is concerned.

The Welsh back three of Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and the increasingly brilliant George North were responsible for registering all 23 points, but I defy anyone to argue that any one of that trio contributed more than any of the Irish quartet to this vital victory.

Credit, too, Sam Warburton, who despite the external pressure and media hype, delivered an all-consuming performance.

Gatland has in Warburton an on-field general possessing that perfect chemistry of fire in the belly and ice in the veins. When he approaches referees they listen because he speaks with such clarity and respect.

Despite the Brisbane defeat and their horrendous injury toll behind the scrum, the Wallabies will be dangerous come next Saturday. Given the short turnaround, though, it is probably the Lions' best opportunity to seal the series.

Will Gatland change a winning side? With Bowe and, perhaps, Roberts fit and, depending on how Tuilagi goes against the Rebels, the heat will be on Cuthbert and Jonathan Davies ahead of the second Test.

Scrum-half, too, will be up for discussion, with Conor Murray back in the frame. I suspect Mike Phillips will hang on, but certainly for Murray tomorrow's final match for the midweek trekkers presents a big opportunity.

Irish Independent

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