Sunday 17 December 2017

Murphy's Law helps visitors get out of jail

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

You might not remember the first Test in New Zealand in 1993 but for sure you'll recall the finish of the second Test in South Africa four years ago. Both featured last-minute penalties against the tourists – the first defined the series, the second won it. And then in Brisbane yesterday the Lions lined up as Kurtley Beale tried to do the same for the Wallabies, and slipped.

Given the extraordinary advantages the Lions had enjoyed, with a whole episode of Murphy's Law unfolding on the home team, it's hard to see how the Lions could have coped with losing this one. They move on to Melbourne this morning with the glow which comes from having survived a close call. Moreover, there is improving news on the injury front, where Tommy Bowe and Manu Tuilagi are due to be back in the mix for Saturday.

The Wallabies are carrying a heavier load. Christian Leali'ifano might well pass all the cognitive routine tests to get back on the field and restore some order to their goalkicking, but neither Berrick Barnes nor Adam Ashley-Cooper looked too flash after this. The home team always picks up quickly after the first Test, and they will be better for what was the first game in three weeks for all of them, and much longer in a couple of other cases.

This poses a selection dilemma for Robbie Deans, whose back is already firmly pressed to the wall. He went out on a limb on the outhalf issue, ditching Quade Cooper for James O'Connor, and then had to lump the goal-kicking on O'Connor when Leali'ifano went off yesterday. He can't abandon O'Connor now, but if Leali'ifano doesn't come through then Australia will be dragging a weight behind them heading to Melbourne.

The Lions have issues as well. It was unsettling the speed with which they lost control when the front-row changes were made. Dan Cole especially has done little to impress on this trip and it's hard to see him improving now. This will mean a full shift in Melbourne for Adam Jones.

After giving away 12 penalties – at least four more than you'd consider acceptable – there will be all sorts of moaning about how Chris Pollock handled the game. Warren Gatland implied at the post-match press conference that this was a level too high for his fellow Kiwi. An article on Pollock in the match programme was headlined: 'A ref who listens.' He'll have to listen to a whole heap for the next few days.

Asked the leading question, did he think his team were "crucified at the breakdown?" Gatland responded: "Eh, yes." He then highlighted a few things, but especially Brian O'Driscoll's anger at being done twice in the opening quarter for going off his feet at the breakdown. From where we were sitting Pollock was spot on, as indeed he was when whistling James Horwill for the same offence when the Wallabies had counter rucked close to their own line. Much of the poaching done at the breakdown in rugby is wholly illegal, with offenders having all their body weight loaded onto their hands which invariably start off on the ground.

When Pollock's ears have been bashed then Craig Joubert will be getting it, for he is next up in Melbourne. He was pretty vocal yesterday on the ref link to Pollock about the need to keep gold jersies onside, so we'll see what tack he takes on Saturday on that as well as the tackle.

The Rebels will be getting in the way on Tuesday but it's unlikely Gatland will be using that to help him make up his mind on anyone. He should be concerned though about Jamie Heaslip's issues at the back of the scrum, and the form of Mike Phillips, who kicked badly and generally looked to be tuned out – on one occasion he bogged away turnover ball with a four to two overlap to be exploited. We're not suggesting Conor Murray is the answer but with 68 per cent possession in the first half, and not much running threat from Phillips, you wanted Ben Youngs on sooner. When he came on he didn't look too hot either, unlike his brother, who had a terrific game. The Wallabies worked hard on closing off the back of the lineout, forcing the Lions to throw a lot to the front – it suited Youngs but overall it's limiting.

The most worrying thing for Gatland though was the unwanted, negative impact of his bench. Dan Lydiate is either a starter or nothing, and Sean O'Brien would have been a great asset to spring for the last 25 minutes in Brisbane. It was suggested that he doesn't offload enough. Well, neither does anyone else on this team.

Three offloads over 80 minutes in Suncorp made you wonder how good the Lions could be if they could improve that stat. And if they had a game changer to come behind the scrum. That certainly is not Owen Farrell, who along with Sean Maitland remained unused. Farrell is competitive but well behind Sexton who did well yesterday. Perhaps they have had their injury crisis and will stay intact until Sydney. If so then last-minute decisions at that point will be irrelevant.

Irish Independent

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