Beale lets Lions off the hook
More than enough in first test to suggest Wallabies will improve and are capable of coming back as they did 12 years ago
Alex Cuthbert celebrates with Brian O’Driscoll after the winger’s try. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Jonathan Davies and Ben Youngs celebrate victory after the first test against Australia Wallabies. Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
Kurtley Beale slips as he misses a late penalty against the British and Irish Lions. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters
Brian O’Driscoll congratulates Alex Cuthbert on his try. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Israel Folau scores a try in the first half.
George North gestures as he goes clear to score the first try for the Lions. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters
Paul O’Connell shakes hands with Rob Simmons after the match. David Gray/Reuters
Alex Cuthbert runs in to score. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Kurtley Beale and Leigh Halfpenny shake hands after the match. Photograph: Chris Hyde/Getty Images
The Wallabies embrace shortly before kick-off. Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images
George North breaks through the Australian defence before his try. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Australia 21 British & Irish Lions 23: Sport’s habit of scripting scenarios readymade for a movie plot knows no bounds, and it seemed this had been set-up for Australian rugby’s adored if troubled favourite son, the indigenous Kurtley Beale. Inched back into the Wallabies’ set-up after two weeks in rehab for alcohol-related issues, the first test end game had given him the opportunity to be the match-winning hero when he addressed a penalty 45 metres out from straight in front of goal.
Less than five minutes earlier, Beale had missed horribly from no more than 35 metres out and to the left of the posts after Mako Vunipola had entered a maul from the side. Whereupon, with an almost slow-motion, grim reality, the Lions’ scrum was predictably penalised as it buckled on Dan Cole’s tighthead side - whose introduction along with that of James Slipper completely turned what had been the Lions’ most potent weapon into an Achilles heel.
But Beale kept re-addressing the ball, and shook his hips nervously as an expectant home crowd hummed, before his standing left foot slipped in the mud left by the preceding scrum and the penalty skewed off to the left. With that Brian O’Driscoll ushered the ball over the dead line and how the relieved Lions’ fans roared.
With James O’Connor having been an equally unreliable marksman after nominated kicked Christian Leali’ifano had been concussed in the first minute, the Wallabies could lament missing a total of 14 points. By contrast, unlike a dozen years ago when Jonny Wilkinson’s 56 per cent return went a long way to costing the Lions the series, Leigh Halpfenny landed five from six for a 13 point haul which tilted the result to the tourists.
This was after both teams had scored two tries apiece in a rollercoaster contest. Warren Gatland had forecast that the Israel Folau-George North contest would be worth the admission money alone and how it proved. The freakishly talented Folau scored a brace on a stunning introduction to test rugby as against North’s brilliant solo effort and a superbly worked score by Alex Cuthbert.
All in all, it ebbed and flowed, and hummed throughout with scarcely a dull moment, but there was more than enough in this first test to suggest that the Wallabies will improve and are well capable of coming back as they did 12 years ago. Will Genia was the best player on the pitch, the Lions seemingly having no clue how to close him down, although O’Connor didn’t look like the first cousin of a test outhalf. Nor were the question marks about the Lions’ selection policy on the bench resolved, specifically the lack of ballast in the back row.
The first half particularly was a bit too wild and loose, one imagines, for the liking of the Lions management, for it appeared there were looking for a more controlled game, less risky, possession and territorially dominant game than had hitherto been the case, setting narrower targets, punching holes closer in, utilising their scrum and maul, and only going wide when they had landed most of these blows inside.