Heart rates soared … again. It came down to the last kick of the game … again. And the kick was unsuccessful … again.
But this time it was elation for the golden safari hat wearing supporters as the Wallabies took the 2nd Test to level the series.
Memories of 2001, when the Australians came from 0-1 behind to win the series, spring to mind, with even a fired up Brian O’Driscoll unable to inspire a Lions victory. O’Driscoll, the only remaining playing tourist from 12 years ago, had given the rest of the squad a motivational speech during the week, urging the Lions to seize the moment and right the wrongs of the previous 16 years.
But a ferocious Australian assault paved the way for a match-winning try from Adam Ashley-Cooper, O’Driscoll’s opposite man.
The Lions were fast-paced out of the blocks, pinning Australia back and earning a penalty for Leigh Halfpenny to take the first points of the game. But even though Halfpenny has been the in-form kicker so far on tour, it was Wallaby centre Christian Leali’ifano who made 2nd Test headlines with a 100% strike rate, including the match-winning conversion.
With so much at stake, both sides played conservatively and struggled to threaten the other’s tryline for the first 40minutes. The error and penalty counts were exceptionally high, so it was exchange of penalties, kicker v kicker. Scrums descended into almost automatic penalties, Lions loosehead Mako Vunipola the one struggling at first but referee Craig Joubert then turning against the Wallabies in the later stages of the half.
Joubert did at least allow the Lions some breathing space at the breakdown and Lions captain Sam Warburton put doubts of his starting place to rest with some imperious turnover work.
But it was the ability of the Wallabies to adapt their gameplan that meant the Lions couldn’t capitalise on a 12-9 halftime advantage. Though Halfpenny kicked his fifth penalty of the game with 20 minutes to go, taking the score to 15-9, wave after wave of Australian attack penetrated deep into Lions territory in response. The Lions defended heroically but Ashley-Cooper took a nice line off fly-half James O’Connor five minutes before time and cut through Jonathan Davies from close range. Leali’ifano, who had been stretchered off in the first minute the previous weekend, showed nerves of steel to take the winning points.
With three minutes on the clock O’Connor made a seemingly horrendous error by clearing the ball straight to touch even though the ball had been passed back over the 22. The Lions were given the territorial advantage at the ensuing lineout and needed only to claim the ball to set up a drop goal attempt but replacement hooker Hibbard failed to hit his man and the Wallabies wound down the clock.
Prayers for a last minute miracle were answered when Joubert awarded the Lions a penalty on the halfway line after the final hooter but Halfpenny’s attempt to seal the series fell agonisingly short.
Ultimately, the Lions’ conservative play made for some sinfully predictable rugby and the Wallaby line was rarely under threat. In fact, the stats say it all. While Australia conceded more turnovers and more penalties, the Lions:
– had only a third of possession and territory
– made no clean breaks to the Australians’ four
– beat half the number of defenders (7 to 14)
– ran only 148m with the ball to the Wallabies’ 418m*
On a lighter note, George North and Israel Folau followed on from their stunning individual tries in the 1st Test with powerful running displays. While Folau led the charge that ended in the try, it was North who came away with the moral victory 60minutes in. On the receiving end of an unshakable Folau tackle, North, with ball still tucked neatly under his arm, simply scooped Folau into a fireman’s lift and powered off up the field with him!
The Lions now face a nerve-wrecking day or so to find out if their leader Warburton, who limped off with a hamstring injury, will be fit in time for the decisive third test. However, Sean O’Brien made an enormous impact from the bench and would be a more than adequate replacement, having played a lot of his international rugby at openside.
*Stats from ESPNScrum.com