YOU could say the Lions got out of jail, but that wouldn’t even come close to describing what happened in this gob-smacking Test match, the tension of it beamed back from Brisbane and into the living rooms of Britain and Ireland where rugby fans sat on couches – or hid behind them in the end-game.
In this corner of the world we have the Lions in our hearts, but the reality of yesterday was that in a game of the highest class and near supernatural drama, the Australians were the ones to admire the most given the freakish misfortune that befell them. Sporting heroism could be seen in Brisbane and for all the wondrous individual moments provided by the Lions, most of the ones you looked to at the end wore gold. The visitors won the Test, but in refusing to bend to their rotten luck the Wallabies were immense. Will Genia led them like a 10ft giant. Israel Folau scared the red-shirts witless with two stunning tries and the pack gathered themselves after a chastening opening half to ask so many questions of the Lions scrum, most of them asked after Alex Corbisero and Adam Jones left the field to be replaced by Mako Vunipola and Dan Cole.
Vunipola’s lack of discipline in the white heat of those closing moments almost cost the Lions everything.
The Wallabies’ calamities started early and they were sustained until the end. After a minute they lost their best distributor in the midfield, Christian Leali’ifano. After 39 minutes the stretcher came on for Berrick Barnes, their full-back. Seven minutes into the second half and the stretcher reappeared for Pat McCabe, who had come on for Leali’ifano. From the 47th minute onwards, the Wallabies had an openside flanker, Michael Hooper, playing at inside centre. Rarely has a backline been so decimated so quickly in a game of such importance.
In the malaise, the Lions struck. Alex Cuthbert cut inside the alien presence of Hooper in the midfield and nobody could stop him thereafter. But within the score that put the visitors 20-12 ahead was a further illustration of the rugby gods smiling on the Lions. Cuthbert scythed his way through a gap that was created in part by Hooper’s defensive confusion in foreign territory and partly because of a decoy run by Brian O’Driscoll that could easily have been construed as a block on James O’Connor, the stand-off’s speed across the line being compromised by his brush with the Irishman. The television match official said that “no clear and obvious obstruction” had been made on O’Connor. It was a break that went the Lions’ way. One of many.
At that point, the 49th minute, you thought the Wallabies might fold. They had every reason to. Three members of their backline invalided out of the Test, a seven playing at 12 and a ten, O’Connor, who is not really a ten at all. He’s a supremely talented footballer, O’Connor, but he’s not a stand-off – Quade Cooper’s face may as well have been a giant hologram in the sky given the amount of times he would have been talked about during the Test – and he’s not a dependable goal-kicker either. Then again, he wasn’t supposed to be the kicker yesterday. That job was due to fall to Leali’ifano. That plan went out of the window in seconds. O’Connor missed three of his four kicks at goal and robbed his team of momentum. Down at the other end, the dead-eye of Leigh Halfpenny kept the Lions going. So many things happened out there, but the kicking game was at the heart of victory or defeat.
Twice in the closing minutes the Wallabies, through the renaissance man-in-waiting, Kurtley Beale, had pots at goal that would have won the Test. Beale had made a massive impact when coming off the bench, had made one terrific break and had knocked over one seismic kick. But Beale was third choice in that department. The first kick was straightforward and Beale missed it. The second was the game’s last act and he slipped on impact. At the end, the sight of Beale, not long out of rehab for his drink problems, was a picture of despair. You feared for the man in those moments. Feared for his vulnerable psyche so soon after experiencing such a personal trauma in trying to deal with his inner demons.
We suspected that this would be a memorable Test, but it was even more breathless than anybody could have imagined. You had the early angst for the Wallabies through those missed kicks and those departing players. You had simultaneous angst for the Lions through Chris Pollock’s refereeing of the breakdown followed by the sucker punch of Folau’s first try, a masterful smash and grab orchestrated by Genia when the Lions were rumbling down the other end.
Wallaby glory was matched by George North soon after. North’s mesmeric try conjured up images of O’Driscoll and Jason Robinson in the first Test in this city a dozen years ago. It was a score to live with any other in the 125 years of these pilgrimages down south, a score that made you gasp at the Welshman’s power and grace and, frankly, his age. At 21, North is a frightening prospect.
The Lions couldn’t build on their 13-7 lead because their errors were ruthlessly exposed by the Wallabies. Mike Phillips played poorly and kicked lamely for most of the day. One of his kicks gave cheap possession to the Wallabies and by the time they got it back again Folau had scored his second try.
The Australian backline continued to fall but from somewhere they found dominance and points and could so easily have found victory, too. The Lions’ nerves under pressure will be something that coach Warren Gatland will think about this week, presuming that Robbie Deans can muster up a team for Melbourne considering the casualties of yesterday.
A win and a bizarre one, but one to cherish all the same. If you are into schadenfreude then you might have cast your mind back to the second Test in 2001 when a struggling Australia turned the series on its head when Nathan Grey cynically targeted the Lions’ most influential player, Richard Hill, and put him out of the match and the final Test to boot. Brutal games, these. Thrilling and cruel. Two more to come. Praise be.