For Gatland, winning the test series is all that counts and he got off to a good start at the Suncorp Stadium on Saturday, but by the narrowest of margins. When the Lions scored their second try in the 48th minute, opening up an 8 point lead, the Wallabies were in disarray with openside Hooper covering at 2nd 5/8th and everyone expected the tourists to cruise home. 3 minutes later, Gatland sent Vunipola and Cole on to replace Corbisiero and Jones who, whilst not as dominant as the early exchanges suggested, certainly had the upper hand. From then on the Wallabies were on top and red bums were squeaking right up to the point when Kurtley Beale fell on his.
Gatland will continue to be questioned on his back-row selection, where only the impressive Jamie Heaslip stood out, with Warburton (12 tackles, but 3 carries for no gain and no turnovers) and Croft fairly anonymous. Lydiate came on with 8 minutes remaining to help protect the 2-point lead, when perhaps an earlier introduction of an impact player, such as Tipuric or O’Brien, may have been more valuable. The debate will continue, but I still think that the SOB, Tipuric, Heaslip backrow is the best combination. Barring injury, I don’t expect to see it, which Gatland will have to explain if he doesn’t secure the series.
But to be fair to the Kiwi coach, his other controversial selections, both in the front-row, were proved to be spot on. Corbisiero had a decent outing (although Healy and Jenkins are badly missed) and Youngs was good. That said, the Australian put the East Mids pocket rocket under no pressure whatsoever at the lineout. I found this mystifying, but the insightful Dean Ryan, writing in the Observer, has suggested that the convicts were happy to cede the front of the lineout to the Lions, knowing that this would enable them to dominate defensively in the centre of the park, thus stifling the Gatty-ball template. Mike Phillips’ ineffectual performance certainly lends credence to this theory.
When Vunipola came on, we were treated to a 30-minute justification of his non-selection. The Lions’ scrum at first conceded the advantage and then imploded, splintering badly in the 78th minute to give Kurtley Beale his shot at redemption. By this stage the Aussies had sent on their reserve props who were supposed to be inferior to the Lions’ second string, and the Aussies’ weakest link. Clearly not and this must be an area of massive concern for Rowntree ahead of the second test – more so now that the non-srummaging Vunipola may have to start.
Robbie Deans should also be feeling uncomfortable, after the James O’Connor gamble bombed. The Rebels first-five struggled to ignite the talented Aussie three-quarters, and his average performance was highlighted by the excellence of Kurtley Beale, who came on just before half-time vice Berrick Barnes after the full-back was concussed when his chin collided with Folau’s shoulder. Barnes has a lot of previous with head injuries and may well be out for the remainder of the series.
Prior to his premature departure, Barnes had been disappointing and it was his aimless kick that sparked the test into life. George North fielded the ball under no pressure and set off on the counter, skipping past McCabe and then accelerating past Barnes who threw himself at the winger in a desperate attempt to atone for his error. North then pinned his ears back and headed for the corner, beating Genia to the line. It was a moment of magic, spoiled only by North’s arrogant finger-point at Genia as he ran to the corner. The cheerleaders in the Sky commentary box said nothing but there has been plenty of adverse reaction in the Twittersphere and North would do well to model his behaviour on BOD rather than the Toulon recidivist.
To taunt Genia was particularly dull as the Queensland pivot was magnificent. Shortly before North’s wonder-try, Genia had created a fantastic 5-pointer for Folau to open the scoring. Prizing the ball out of a ruck following a Lions’ transgression, he tapped and set off from his 22. His running mesmerised his opposite number who could do nothing more than jog back as a lame spectator. Genia’s surge took him to within 5m of the Lions’ 22. O’Connor ran an excellent outside to in line and if Genia had passed to his left the stand-off would only have had 0.5p to beat. Instead, and quite brilliantly, Genia dropped the ball onto his right boot and put an almost lateral grubber through to Folau who gathered and romped under the sticks unmolested.
On Thursday, in a moment of stunning stupidity, the ‘award winning’ Sunday Times columnist (5 of those letters are surplus to requirement!) suggested that Folau would struggle with the step up from ARL/NRL to test rugby. Well, in the opinion of this humble scribbler, the Waratahs’ freak of nature looked to have pulled on his slippers and been drawing on his pipe as he fainted to the outside and then ghosted past Jonny Sexton to score his second try. In almost every regard he was magnificent and in a game in which the Welsh prodigy confirmed his extraordinary talent, Folau just shaded it over North and was deservedly awarded the man of the match.
However, I reckon that one could make a case for Leigh Halfpenny to have been the MVP, as his kicking was the difference between the 2 teams. Whilst O’Connor and then Beale struggled off the tee, managing a paltry 4 from 9, Halfpenny was (almost) perfect again. Australia left 14 highly kickable points behind, and had O’Connor kicked the 2 early penalties as he really ought, Australia would have been 13 points to the good at the end of the first quarter. The loss of Leali’ifano, who was due to take the place kicks (not to mention be the key distributor in midfield), was a massive loss for the Wallabies. It is highly unlikely that the Lions will be as lucky next week.
There has been a lot of criticism of referee Chris Pollock, particularly over his interpretation of the breakdown. He certainly could have been a tad more consistent and is open to criticism for not binning Hooper, Palu or POC for cynical transgressions in the red zone. But his interpretation of the laws at the breakdown seemed spot on to me. BOD’s first penalty is a good example. The Leinster legend starts with his elbows on the deck the then draws back pulling the ball up. Very few refs pick this up but, by the letter of the law, it is illegal. The benefit of Pollock’s interpretation is that the extra time it takes the defender to get to his feet and the increased instability of a legal ‘jackal’ means that attacking sides can secure more, quick ball.
Pollock also deserves a lot of credit for the speed with which he stopped the game to deal with the injuries to Leali’ifano and Barnes. Many times in the NH, refs allow the game to proceed as medical staff try to deal with badly injured players (e.g. Luke Marshall on more than one occasion). In my view this is a shocking abrogation, but in this case Pollock was spot on.
So the Lions head for Melbourne and a date with destiny as they try to secure a historic 5th series victory. Things looked promising despite the issues with Saturday’s performance until the news was released that Corbisiero is out and POC is a doubt. Tom Court, serendipitously on holiday in his hometown of Brisbane, has been called up to cover Vunipola who will start on Saturday unless Grant plays a stormer against the Rebels. Robbie Deans must be thanking his lucky stars as the scrum now looks like a potential source of penalties for the Aussies. All he needs is for Kurtley to buy some longer studs and the teams should be heading to Sydney all-square.
If its better to be lucky than good, then Saturday was a great day for the Lions. Or rather, it was a terrible day for Australia. To lose three starting backs and a substitute centre is fairly calamitous. But when the first choice goal kicker lasts less than 1 minute and the Lions scored a try by exploiting the flanker moved to inside centre, that's a huge points swing. It would've only taken a 55% kicking success rate for Australia to win, something Christian Leali'ifano is easily capable of, but he got his head on the wrong side of Jonathon Davies inside 40 seconds.
What it sometimes lacked in quality, the game more than made up for in overall intenisty, drama and a few moments of absolute genius. Any one of the first three tries would have been enough to light up the occasion. To get all three in the first half was spectacular. The game going down to a kick in the last minute was almost too much to handle.
It could have been so much different for the Loins but as it is they're half way to victory. A wins a win.
Lions Issues for the Second Test
- Get Mike Phillips passing. Phillips has a brilliant running and carrying game but Wales' reliance on him is well known and Ben Mowen had Phillips in his pocket on Saturday, marshalling him closely and smashing him backwards frequently. Phillips needs to up the tempo of his passing and let Sexton run the game.
- Teach Mako Vuinipola to scrummage. Australia had a kick to win the game because the Lions scrum got shoved off their own ball in the last minute. The big loosehead is dynamite with the ball but with Alex Corbisiero looking likely to miss the second test, its Vuinipola's scrummaging that will come under scrutiny.
- Patch up Jamie Roberts. Jonathon Davies didn't have a bad game but his partnership with O'Driscoll never got off the ground and he doesn't have Roberts ability to crash over the gainline and get the Lions moving forward and building phases. On that point getting Sean O'Brien on the field should be a priority too.