Australia 16 - 15 Lions: Series tied at 1-1

British and Irish Lions'  Leigh Half penny reacts after missing the final penalty kick. Picture: AP
British and Irish Lions' Leigh Half penny reacts after missing the final penalty kick. Picture: AP
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IF YOU took this storyline to a Hollywood producer you’d be thrown out on your ear for stretching credibility way beyond breaking point. As entertainment this was appalling, as edge-of-the-seat, nerve-shredding drama it was utterly compelling.

AUSTRALIA 16

Tries: Ashley-Cooper Conversions: Leali’ifano Penalties: Leali’ifano (3)

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS 15

Penalties: Halfpenny 5

Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)

Attendance: 56,771

Last weekend the winning margin was two points, yesterday it was one and if it is possible to win a match by half a point it will undoubtedly happen next Saturday in Sydney.

In Brisbane, Kurtley Beale had an opportunity to snatch victory for Australia with the last kick of the game. Yesterday in Melbourne the Lions’ full-back Leigh Halfpenny could have nailed the series with a 54-yard penalty after the hooter. The Etihad is not Thomond Park and the raucous Aussie crowd’s jeers turned to cheers as they realised that the ball hadn’t the legs to trouble the sticks. The same man hit the crossbar with his first penalty and those two misses were to prove costly.

Needs must, as the old saying has it and, needing a win to take the series to Sydney, the Wallabies went to their well of sporting resilience and mustered the victory that they so badly needed. The crowd roared their approval at the death and skipper James Horwill, with that disciplinary cloud hanging over him, raised twin fists at the Lions, the critics and anyone else who wanted a piece of him.

The match was a dreadful dirge, “as frustrating to play in as it was to watch” according to victorious coach Robbie Deans, at least until the final quarter when it sprang into life. With the clock and a six-point advantage in their favour, it seemed that the Lions would edge their nose over the finishing line, but Adam Ashley-Cooper, who shrugged off a shoulder injury to play yesterday, had other ideas.

The Wallabies mounted a ferocious assault on the Lions’ line, the big men battered their way forward before Will Genia switched play from right to left, James O’Connor found his classy centre who, in turn, found half a yard of space inside Jon Davies to dive over the line for the only try of the match.

After his early injury in Brisbane, Christian Leali’ifano had already kicked three from three and the Wallabies needed the touchline conversion. The crowd’s cheers told everyone that the ball was never heading anywhere other than the middle of the posts… and still the match wasn’t won.

With three minutes left on the clock, the Lions won an attacking lineout, shades of 2001 sprang to mind, but the combined skills of Ben Mowen and Liam Gill poached another Lions’ throw. And still the drama continued. The Wallabies were running down the clock with a series of pick and drives inside the Lions’ half when the referee pinged them for handling on the floor.

The tourists tapped the penalty and ran in a last, desperate, attempt to pull this one from the fire and sure enough a few plays later Halfpenny was lining up his shot to nothing. It fell short and so, ultimately, did this Lions squad. A strength had become a weakness and it wasn’t the only one because the Lions scrum was hopelessly inconsistent all evening.

On occasion they got the whip hand over the Aussie big men, two of Halfpenny’s four penalties in the first half came directly from dominant scrums, but the pendulum swung back and forth all match with Mako Vunipola on the wrong side of the referee early and often.

Twice the big English prop was pinged at the scrum and twice Leali’ifano made him pay on the scoreboard. The Lions even lost one of their own put ins which is almost unheard of at this level. If it was a frustrating match for the viewers, spare a thought for Scotland’s Ryan Grant who sat the entire match on the reserve bench. His set scrum expertise appears to be classified information, a better kept secret than the whereabouts of the US fugitive Edward Snowden.

On the night, the Lions were just too timid, they went down almost without firing any shots or at least any meaningful ones. The pressure of the occasion crushed the ambition out of them. It’s difficult to remember the men in red threatening the Wallaby line except in the opening quarter when a few burly backs joined an attacking lineout and almost muscled their way over the try line.

With so much at stake it is perhaps understandable that nerves were on edge but its almost impossible to imagine the All Blacks allowing standards to drop quite this low as both teams made a host of simple handling errors that would have had a schoolboy team doing extra push-ups until the sun sank.

In one piece of action, Wallaby flanker Michael Hooper knocked on at the tail of the lineout, the Lions won the loose ball, kicked downtown where another Wallaby fumbled in the melee. The Lions won the ball and Brian O’Driscoll spilled the ball in the tackle. The Wallabies countered up the left flank and, you’ve probably guessed, knocked on at the breakdown.

Matters improved as the match progressed. The third quarter was scoreless but the Lions’ three-point advantage was doubled on 62 minutes from another Halfpenny kick from another set scrum penalty. For the first time, the lead was six precious points. It looked like a mountain in a game of minuscule margins but this Wallaby squad is nothing if not resilient and their persistence and belief were rewarded when Ashley-Cooper scored the only try on 75 minutes to square the series at 1-1.

Past last-test deciders

1989 Australia 18 Lions 19

AFTER the 12-30 loss in Sydney and the 19-12 Battle of Ballymore victory, Finlay Calder’s Lions, coached by Ian McGeechan, returned to Sydney for a titanic encounter that ended in an extraordinary fashion.

Three Gavin Hastings penalties cancelled out Ian Williams’ try – four points only in those days – and Michael Lynagh’s conversion and penalty. With 20 minutes left, and Australia 12-9 up, David Campese made a schoolboy error, handing Ieuan Evans a soft try. Hastings goaled two further penalties to put the Lions 19-12 up, and two further Lynagh penalties were not enough to prevent the Lions taking the series – the first time they had come from 1-0 behind in a series.

• 1993 New Zealand 30 Lions 13

A CONTROVERSIAL late penalty by Grant Fox denied the McGeechan-coached Lions victory in their first match in Christchurch, with the tourists taking revenge in a record 20-7 win in Wellington in the second Test.

That set up a winner-takes-all encounter at Auckland. A Scott Gibbs try and captain Gavin Hastings’, pictured, conversion and penalty gave the Lions an early lead, but the All Blacks were simply brilliant from then on, scoring three converted tries by Frank Bunce, Sean Fitzpatrick and Jon Preston to record their second-highest score against the Lions in the last series of the amateur era.

• 2001 Australia 29 Lions 23

TWO wide-margin victories by each side in Brisbane and Melbourne set up the decider in Sydney. Matt Burke’s three penalties to a single counter by Jonny Wilkinson put the hosts 9-3 up, but Jason Robinson’s smart try, converted by Wilkinson, made it 10-9 for the Lions, only for Danny Herbert to score a converted try. Wilkinson converted his own try to put the Lions in front only for Herbert to score a second try, converted by Burke, who added two penalties to one by Wilkinson for a 29-23 win, sealed by Aussie Justin Harrison’s fabled lineout steal.

Australia: Beale; Folau, Ashley-Cooper, Leali’ifano, Tomane; O’Connor, Genia; Robinson (Slipper 61), Moore, Alexander (Kepu 58), Horwill, Douglas (Simmons 52 min), Mowen, Hooper, Palu (Gill 61).

Lions: Halfpenny; Bowe, O’Driscoll, Davies, North; Sexton, B Youngs (Murray 53); Vunipola, T Youngs (Hibbard 55), A Jones (Cole 58 min), A-W Jones, Parling, Lydiate, Warburton (Croft 66), Heaslip (O’Brien 63)