Sport Rugby

Monday 19 March 2018

Wallabies sure to finish job in Sydney after revelling in trench warfare to expose tourists' attacking defects

Next week won't even be close as wily hosts negate tourists' brawn, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

oh the incalculable ecstasy of the win – it is always interesting to see big men cry, and after a couple of celebratory hugs the Australian captain James Horwill broke down into a blubbering mess – it meant that much to win a match of such small margins. What a match. We got the sizzle and the steak in an 80 minutes that was both chaotic and quixotic.

Yet this game could have been decided by a travesty based on the lottery of what happened at the key phase where the momentum swung this way and that several times, where both sets of forwards were absolutely certain about their ability right up until the last few minutes. At that point the Australians opted for a scrum close to the line in the clutch play of the game, even though they had conceded six penalties at scrum time.

It was the unspoken subtext in this crucial second Test – the Lions were talking about how little they had shown, yet in the deeper recesses of their minds they were here to scrum. The Australians knew that, and to win this series they would have to match them in the trenches. They did and they will now go to Sydney and win this series.

Prior to kick-off I was watching Leigh Halfpenny practise his goal-kicking. It was like watching a fish practise his swimming, it just came so naturally to him. The two crucial penalties that went against the Wallabies well into injury-time were gutsy calls by referee Craig Joubert and he was probably trying to exorcise the ghosts from his performance in the World Cup final of 2011.

It would have been easier to ignore the Wallaby forwards as they went off their feet and sealed off the breakdown as they sought to close out the game. It takes a brave man to call two such penalties but that is exactly what happened.

There are certain similarities with Stephen Jones's missed last-minute penalty in Ireland's Grand Slam season. There can be no talk about air pressure or the coldness of the atmosphere depriving the ball of a few more metres. Halfpenny missed for the same reasons that Stephen Jones missed – he was out of his range, and although he had converted one earlier in the 61st minute from 49 metres, the extra two metres wasn't the obstacle.

When you want to kick long you keep the head down longer and you accentuate your follow-through and trust your accuracy from the number of glances that you take at the posts. You also pray that you are not wearing moulded soles. Halfpenny's head stayed down but he snapped it up as he stroked through the ball and the follow-through was short. It was a good way short of where it should have been. These are the margins – fortune cookie wisdom, I suppose.

The Lions lost yesterday's crucial match and they lost it by a far greater margin than one point. Several reasons are less convincing than one. The prime reason is that they were not good enough and it beggars belief that with all the field position and possession that the Wallabies had that they did not pull away when the game started to open up from the 50th minute on.

The Lions never looked like scoring a try, which was probably within their game plan, looking back at their series win in 1997 when all their points came from kicks. The Australians, though, had plenty of try opportunities and yet still trailed as the madam said 'Heavens, 11 o'clock and not a whore in the house painted and the street full of sailors.'

The Australians had a surfeit of possession and their simple errors when they had opportunity kept the pressure off the Lions. Kurtley Beale knocked one on as they were cranking it up. James O'Connor, too, as the Australians were just getting into their rhythm.

Some of their bigger forwards took their eye off the ball in contact and quite a number of their runners got turned over in contact. It was disturbing how easily they broke the gain line and how composed they looked the further the game went on.

It was almost another case of history repeating itself as Brian O'Driscoll of all people threw an intercept pass to Israel Folau.

It was like the vital moment in the second Test 12 years ago – Jonny Wilkinson's pass that was picked up by Joe Roff, which signalled the beginning of the end of that challenge.

The Lions recovered and scrambled but from then on they were fighting a rearguard, and their last score came from a monumental heave from their pack in the 61st minute – Halfpenny slotting it with the head down and the correct follow-through. The Lions resorted to kicking the ball high in the air, a gambit that worked for them as their bigger men consistently won the aerial battle, but they couldn't fashion any continuity from it and they were predictable as they tried to get their big men around the corner.

Australia cranked it up again and this time the Lions weren't able to pick them off at the breakdown because Sam Warburton, who had a really super game, had hobbled off with what he said was a hamstring injury but looked more like ankle ligaments to me – either way, it will be a miracle if he plays next week in Sydney. I think the Lions medics are fresh out of miracles.

The match went into hyper drive with nine minutes to go. Folau, who was the Australian game breaker, got in behind for the fourth time in the match. We acknowledge George North's brilliance with the ball in hand but defensively he is quite susceptible to the step inside. They tried to use him off their scrum close to the line but O'Connor's blind pass was telegraphed and Folau came too straight and that opportunity was gone, but shortly afterwards O'Connor's brilliance with the ball gave him an opportunity to hold, slide and deliver.

That ability that close to the line and so flat to the gain line froze the Lions defence and Jonathan Davies was half a metre off as Adam Ashley-Cooper took a straight line in under the sticks. Christian Leali'ifano's

conversion was a thing of beauty if you were an Australian fan.

The kid is a 90 per cent kicker, he got all his kicks and it is the great thing about youth – sometimes ignorance is bliss and, ignorant of the pressure, he stroked it through.

The Lions at this stage were gone, even though Will Genia gave them an opportunity for bringing the ball back in. I have it in my quotes from last weeks match and I'll use it again, it came from the Lions hooker Tom Youngs, who was now on the bench, "sometimes its better to just have the ball."

Every time the Lions threw the ball to the back they turned it over or were rewarded with poor quality ball. Richard Hibbard's throw was poor, the jump was uncertain and Liam Gill drove through to get a vital turnover. If Paul O'Connell had been on the park, would he have called the ball to the front just to make sure that they had won it and a drop goal opportunity could be fashioned for Jonny Sexton?

That, in essence, was the game until Joubert's extraordinary reprise. Warburton acknowledged that the match was "won by a whisker and I hope the match in Sydney is won by us." Hope? The Aussies know that they will win in Sydney and it will be more than by a whisker.

Opportunity knocked and the Lions weren't there to take it.

Irish Independent

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