Lions get out of jail but will do very well to beware wounded and cornered Wallabies
Tourists better in many ways but Australia are unlucky to be undone by Beale slip in opening Test
Kurtley Beale of the Wallabies slips as he tries to kick what would have been a match-winning penalty against the Lions at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane. Photograph: Chris Hyde/Getty Images.
Rules and laws change, travelling armies assume greater volume and colour, sky cams, ref cams, High Definition, social media et al have changed the way the game is presented, but it’s a simple game, really, or at any rate the oldest common denominator still applies.
Saturday’s opening salvo of the Lions 2013 Oz Odyssey, not unexpectedly, had encouraging reminders of their last series win 1997; despite being comfortably outscored in tries by dint of accommodating Neil Jenkins at fullback while the Springboks gambled on having no specialist place-kicker.
And whereas a dozen years ago Jonny Wilkinson’s 56 per cent return was costly for the Lions in a series in which each side scored seven tries, on Saturday, Leigh Halfpenny’s five from six for a 13-point haul trumped four from nine between James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale in a game where both teams scored two superbly-crafted tries apiece.
Four years ago, of course, South Africa won the pivotal second Test through a late Morne Steyn penalty, so perhaps the Lions’ luck has changed.
‘A big call’
“We were a bit unlucky in 2009,” recalled Warren Gatland yesterday who was an assistant coach in South Africa. “It was a big call by the referee to give a penalty in the last minute, right on full-time.
“The problem with Test match rugby is that there is nothing in between. It is either agony or ecstasy. The ecstasy for us is that we have won the game but if that kick had gone over, we would be in a completely different mental edge today.”
Ultimately, this game hinged on Kurtley Beale’s standing leg slipping in the turf, having decided to wear ill-suited moulded studs.
“We’ve had these issues a lot with our players with Wales in the Millennium Stadium,” said Gatland. “It’s quite a slippery surface and on a lot of occasions we’ve said to players make sure they have the right footwear because it is a slippery surface and you have turn up with the right tools. It’s part of your job making sure that you are prepared.”
Even so, it’s hard to not to believe the Lions have played their get-out-of-jail card.
They were the better side in many ways. Initially on top at scrum time from the seismic ninth minute when their concerted shove at scrum time sent the Wallabies sliding back in the turf, a la the Waratahs, they were offered unfettered front-of-the-line and duly took it, either mauling very effectively, using Mike Phillips’s long pass to play from midfield or setting up second phase through Tom Youngs, as they did when clinically exploiting the injury enforced reshuffle which saw flanker Michael Hooper employed at centre for Alex Cuthbert’s try.
For long stretches, they seemed in reasonable control, retaining possession through the phases with effective clearing out, and keeping a good shape in attack and defence.
Paul O’Connell and Alun- Wyn Jones had big games, so too Jamie Heaslip (13 carries and two turnovers won) and Sam Warburton, leading tackler with 14 followed by Brian O’Driscoll (11) and Jonathan Davies (10).
George North was within a whisker of a second try to add to his stunning solo effort when Berrick Barnes kicked down his throat and the winger left Pat McCabe and O’Connor for dead before doing Barnes like a kipper to become the youngest Lions Test try scorer in over 50 years.