ON THE one hand, the Lions won last week and so have got the momentum. On the other hand, they were very lucky, and not only because Kurtley Beale missed the injury-time kick that would have won the match.
Indeed he wouldn’t presumably have been taking the kick if the Wallabies’ first choice kicker, Christian Leali’ifano hadn’t be injured in the first minute of the game.
As it was, the Australian goal-kicking was poor, while Leigh Halfpenny again kicked beautifully for the Lions. Then a series of injuries disrupted the Australian back-line to such an extent that they finished with their open side flanker Michael Hooper, playing at inside centre. Finally, it was, to put it mildly, surprising that the TMO allowed Alex Cuthbert’s try to stand. Brian O’Driscoll’s block on James O’Connor looked a clear case of obstruction to me.
Still, you play the cards you are dealt, and the Lions took their chances, or enough of them, to squeak home. They still looked a very limited side, partly perhaps because Mike Phillips had such a poor match at scrum-half, and partly because they had got their back-row balance wrong. It didn’t help that they evidently lacked confidence in their hooker Tom Youngs’s ability to throw straight to the back of the line-out. They needn’t have worried, since he was permitted to throw off-line directly to a Lion at 2 or 4. But this cut down their attacking options from the line-out. You need a hooker who can be trusted to throw accurately to the tail. At present, the Lions don’t have one, for Richard Hibberd and Rory Best have been throwing even more poorly than Youngs.
Apart from Halfpenny’s goal-kicking, the high spot for the Lions was provided by George North’s brilliant solo try. North is as important to this team as Tony O’Reilly was to the 1955 and 1959 Lions, and is every bit as imposing a figure as the young O’Reilly was then. Two things must be worrying Warren Gatland and his fellow coaches. The first is that, having got a lead of 20-12, the Lions so nearly let it slip, the last 20 minutes of the game belonging to the Wallabies, despite all the injuries they suffered.
The second is that Paul O’Connell is out for the last two Tests. Just when he damaged his arm is not clear, but my impression is that this more or less coincided with the Lions’ loss of control. O’Connell isn’t the tour captain but it seemed to be O’Connell rather than Sam Warburton who was the leader up front. Replacing him with Geoff Parling won’t damage the line-out, but the Lions will surely miss O’Connell in the close-quarter exchanges.
He has mattered as much to this Lions team as he has for years to Munster and Ireland, both of whom have tended to do well when he has been playing, and somewhat less than well when he has been absent. The Wallabies will surely be as delighted not to see O’Connell lining up against them as they are relieved that their captain James Horwill is still available to them for this match at least. Having been found innocent of malignant intention when his boot descended on Alun Wyn Jones’s head, he is to stand trial a second time tomorrow, the Lions’ management’s well-orchestrated indignation having persuaded the IRB that the case needs to be re-opened. Evidently, the law relating to double jeopardy has now been discarded.
There is disappointment here that once again there is no Scot in the starting XV, and only one, Ryan Grant, on the bench. Some are more than disappointed and mutter about discrimination. The disappointment is natural, the muttering ridiculous. The truth is that, for one reason or another, none of the Scots has done quite enough to force his way into the side. Gatland has explained why there is no reserve lock on the bench, and admits that this represents a gamble; but it is evidently a calculated one.
Either Stuart Hogg or Sean Maitland might have been on the bench instead of Alex Cuthbert, both being more versatile than the big Welsh wing. But with Tommy Bowe returning from injury, it would have been harsh to drop Cuthbert from the squad altogether – even though it might have made sense to do so. Grant himself might well have forced his way into the starting XV if he had not been omitted from the original touring party. As it is, he will almost certainly come on some time in the second half.
The Lions were disconcerted last week when referee Chris Pollock observed the strict letter of the law at the breakdown. They will hope for a more generous interpretation from Craig Joubert. Certainly, he has form in this respect, having let Richie McCaw get away with rather a lot – to put it mildly – in the World Cup final against France. Be that as it may, one hopes that Joubert has a better match than he did when he refereed Scotland-Wales at Murrayfield, his performance that day provoking the thought: players get dropped when they have a bad game; why not referees?