THIS was touted as the biggest match in Australia since the Rugby World Cup final of 2003, and it more than matched that lofty billing.
Scorers: Australia - Tries: Israel Folau (2); Conversion: James O’Connor. Penalties: O’Connor, Kurtley Beale (2)
Lions - Tries: George North, Alex Cuthbert; Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny (2); Penalties: Halfpenny (3)
This was sporting drama at its very best, a timely reminder of why we invest so much emotional energy in the pursuit of a pigskin. Even the match officials noted the quality of rugby on show in Brisbane’s magnificent Suncorp Stadium. And when the curtain fell the Lions had retained their 100 per cent winning record against the Wallabies in Brisbane.
The match was up for grabs right up to the very final kick, when Kurtley Beale could have stolen the honours. The man who just months ago was cast out of the Wallaby squad after punching two Rebel team-mates in an alcohol-fuelled fury had not one but two chances to kick winning penalties inside the final six minutes. The first effort sailed well wide and he slipped during the second, the final act of the match, with the ball dropping short and wide. It was cruel fate for a man who had worked his way back into the fans’ affections with the sheer quality of his contribution off the bench.
This one could have gone either way, fine margins have rarely been finer, but when the dust had settled the Lions just about deserved their win, if only for holding their collective nerve. It might have been easier had Mike Phillips not endured one of his least effective matches in a Lions shirt. The scrum-half was scragged numerous times at the base of the breakdown, and he was made to look plum ordinary by Will Genia as his rival went on a mazy walkabout from a quick tap penalty to spark Israel Folau’s first try, with the scrumhalf doing the hard bit before kicking through for his winger to score.
For their part the Wallabies might have made a better fist of things had they hired a kicker. Between them James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale left 14 points on the table in a match that was won by two. Lions kicker Leigh Halfpenny was four from five.
One giant of the game, George North, underlined his standing as a world-class operator while his opposite number Folau announced his arrival on the big stage in the most emphatic manner possible with a brace of tries, the second of which was a rare gem of individual brilliance. Whoever picked him as man of the match had the easiest job of anyone on the night.
The Lions enjoyed the bulk of territory and possession thanks to a rock-solid set piece, at least when the first choice props were on the field, and the combined boots of Jonny Sexton and Jonathan Davies, but they could not quite shake off a gritty and determined Wallaby side that was kept in the hunt by the twin stars Genia and Folau. Perhaps the only man more influential than cross-code winger Folau was the television match official Vinny Munro, who was twice called upon to decide on tries at either end of the field within minutes of each other.
George North had already scored one scorcher, running back a loose kick, before the big winger was denied a second. He dived over in the left-hand corner and looked to have grounded the ball milliseconds before his elbow hit the sidelines. The TMO thought otherwise.
That effort came on the half-hour mark and just four minutes later the TMO was roused from his slumbers once again to decide if the last pass to Folau had travelled forward. That try stood but only after Folau, just five short months after switching from rugby league, beat three defenders on his way to the line, including Jonny Sexton, who he side-stepped without a finger being laid upon him.
If Folau thrived it was a different story for another Wallaby débutante, because Christian Leali’ifano lasted less than a minute before being carted off after his senses parted company with his body when stopping Jonathan Davies on the charge. Berrick Barnes had already been replaced by Kurtley Beale at the end of the first 40, so when substitute Pat McCabe was forced from the field on 46 minutes the Wallaby backline had to employ flanker Michael Hooper at inside centre for the bulk of the second half. He is wonderfully athletic but the backline by necessity lost some of its defensive shape, and so it proved.
With the Lions taking a slender one-point lead into the start of the second half, McCabe was only just off the field when Alex Cuthbert came off his wing and found a huge hole in the Wallaby midfield, pretty much exactly where McCabe would have been defending. Halfpenny’s conversion gave the Lions a handy eight-point advantage.
The Wallabies set about reeling the tourists back in. O’Connor got three back with a penalty on 51 minutes and when Beale kicked a long shot exactly ten minutes later the Lions’ lead was down to two points. Halfpenny got three back but Beale responded in kind after the full-back himself had carved open the Lions’ defence with a scything 60-metre run that deserved more.
Sexton went to the air, Digby Ioane was caught under his own posts, and the Lions won a scrum. They girded their loins, bent their shoulders to the task and promptly went backwards, allowing Genia to steal the ball and send it down town. Folau set off after it and won the bounce against North.
A few minutes later Beale was lining up his twin shots at redemption, but it just wasn’t to be his day... or Australia’s.