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
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.
In front of a ground record crowd of 52,499, going by the decibel levels, there may have been a slight edge to the home side in noise as well as colour, though the latter was largely because the red dominated the upper tiers and in any event it was as close to 50-50 to make no difference.
Instead of the expected wild start however, the game was interrupted in less than a minute as the unfortunate Leali’ifano had his debut cut short inside 50 seconds. The Lions had thrown to Alun Wyn Jones at the front, thereby setting a tone, as Mike Phillips flung the ball out to Jonny Sexton and Jonathan Davies took it up the outside centre channel where the debutant Wallabies centre tackled him head first.
Having signalled his well-being when stretchered off, Leali’ifano would soon be awake and well in the dressing-room, but there were significant repercussions. He had been due to take the Wallabies’ kicks, but instead O’Connor missed penalties from 45 and 40 metres to the left of the posts, striking the first poorly.
Both, remarkably, had been against O’Driscoll for trademark attempted steals; assuredly a first in his career and the second especially would have been an entirely legitimate steal all season long, so much so that an utterly bemused Irishman implored Chris Pollock to “look at the video”.
There appeared an equally seismic moment on this earth-shuddering occasion when the Lions were awarded a tap penalty and opted for another scrum inside their own ten metre line. The perfectly orchestrated scrum which followed drove the Wallabies back ten metres. It planted a seed, not least in Pollock’s mind.
Up the line they went, and had a negligible penalty advantage which Pollock deemed over just as O’Driscoll was pinged, yet again, for holding on, although Benn Robinson looked offside when pouncing on the loose ball. In any event, Genia tapped quickly, and made 50 metres without a hand being placed on him while turning Phillips inside and out before drawing Leigh Halfpenny and dropping the ball onto the outside of his right foot for Folau to gather and round the posts with his second touch in test rugby. That’s Genia’s genius, and even O’Connor couldn’t miss the conversion.
The Lions fans seethed but their team regrouped after Sexton and Warburton held up Digby Ioane in the tackle for a relieving turnover scrum, Youngs went long to Paul O’Connell at a shortened lineout, Kane Douglas came in from the side and Halfpenny opened the Lions account.
The match turned further and vibrantly on its axis when North had time aplenty to field a poor up and under by Berrick Barnes, stepping through O’Connor and Pat McCabe, leaving Barnes for dead and eluding Genia’s covering tackle to score.
North was denied another try following a lineout drive when taking Genia on at the blindside flag by dint of his elbow touching the touchline, Halfpenny making it 13-7 with a penalty instead. Cue another game turner.
Genia it was who created space out of nothing by looping around Douglas before James Horwill released Folau. He stepped inside Sexton to leave him for dead and glided away with that balance of his when handing off Halfpenny before rounding the posts. Ridiculous really, though O’Connor missed a kickable conversion and so despite a rare Halfpenny miss the Lions led with mixed feelings by a point at the break.
By then Beale had replaced Barnes, who suffered a neck injury in a clash with Folau and North, and McCabe would follow, meaning flanker Michael Hooper moved to midfield. The Lions ruthlessly exploited this off another lineout drive, Youngs taking it into contact before O’Driscoll ran a straight decoy line to check O’Connor and Sexton found Cuthbert on the wrap to beat Hooper and Beale, and score.
However, the Lions were frequently incurring the wrath of Pollock at the breakdown, penalties by O’Connor and Beale making it a two point game before Sexton brilliantly gathered his own chip and offloaded to the supporting Paul O’Connell, who had a truly mighty game along with the excellent Jones.
A stunning counter by Beale, leaving Warburton and Richard Hibbard in his wake, the fullback’s own penalty and a turnover scrum against the Lions five metres from the Wallabies line lead to that nerve-wracking finale.
But there’s a sequel or two left in this drama yet.
Scoring sequence: 13 mins Folau try, O’Conor con 7-0; 25 mins Halfpenny pen 7-3; 26 mins North try, Halfpenny con 7-10; 32 mins Halfpenny pen 7-13; 35 mins Folau try 12-13; (half-time 12-13); 49 mins Cuthbert try, Halfpenny con 12-20; 50 mins O’Connor pen 15-20; 61 mins Beale pen 18-20; 66 mins Halfpenny pen 18-23; 68 mins Beale pen 21-23.
Australia: Berrick Barnes (NSW Waratahs); Israel Folau (NSW Waratahs), Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW Waratahs), Christian Leali’ifano (Brumbies), Digby Ioane (Queensland Reds); James O’Connor (Melbourne Rebels), Will Genia (Queensland Reds); Benn Robinson (NSW Waratahs), Stephen Moore (Brumbies), Ben Alexander (Brumbies); Kane Douglas (NSW Waratahs), James Horwill (Queensland Reds, captain); Ben Mowen (Brumbies), Michael Hooper (NSW Waratahs), Wycliffe Palu (Melbourne Rebels). Replacements: Pat McCabe (Brumbies) for Leali’ifano (1 min), Kurtley Beale (Melbourne Rebels) for Barnes (39 mins), Liam Gill (Queensland Reds) for McCabe (48 mins), Sekope Kepu (NSW Waratahs) for Alexander (58 mins), James Slipper (Queensland Reds) for Robinson, Rob Simmons (Queensland Reds) for Douglas (both 69 mins), Nick Phipps (Melbourne Rebels) for Ashley-Cooper (77 mins). Not used: Saia Fainga’a (Queensland Reds).
British & Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues/Wales); Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues/Wales), Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets/Wales), George North (Scarlets/Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/Ireland), Mike Phillips (Bayonne/Wales); Alex Corbisiero (London Irish/England), Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England), Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales); Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Paul O’Connell (Munster/Ireland); Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England), Sam Warburton (Cardiff Blues/Wales, capt) Jamie Heaslip (Leinster/Ireland). Replacements: Makovina Vunipola (Saracens/England) for Corbisiero, Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers/England) for Adam Jones (both 51 mins), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England) for Phillips (62 mins), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys/Wales) for Tom Youngs (65 mins), Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers/England) for A Wyn Jones (71 mins), Dan Lydiate (Dragons/Wales) for Croft (73 mins). Not used: Owen Farrell (Saracens/England), Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors/Scotland).
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand).