Everyone said it was going to be a close call and sure enough this opening Test came down to the final kick of the match when Kurtley Beale lost his footing while attempting to convert the penalty that would have won it for the Wallabies, writes Iain Morrison.
That the opportunity arose from an Australian front row dominating the set scrum only added to the slight sense of unreality.
When quizzed as to whether his main emotion was one of elation or relief, the Lions’ Kiwi coach Warren Gatland, offered a wan smile with his answer. “A bit of both to be honest,” said Gatland. “My initial reaction was ‘oh no, it’s going to happen again’ in the last couple of minutes after they kicked those goals against Wales. It was relief and after that, well, we deserved to win that game.”
“First of all it was on the score board. I just thought we went out there and tried to play a bit of rugby. We tried to play rugby in the first half, a little too much. I felt there were a few decisions that didn’t go our way. We’ll take that on the chin and we’ll look at the video.” Gatland went on to complain about the referee’s blowing of the breakdown and in particular two instances when first Brian O’Driscoll was pinged when the centre was “clearly on his feet” and secondly when Mako Vunipola was penalised for coming in at the side to give Beale the first of those two late opportunities to snatch the honours, when Gatland claimed that the big prop had actually made the tackle.
“I just think that when referees come in from provincial or super rugby there is a huge step up, a huge step up in intensity and having to make decisions, and I think the two guys on the sidelines will have learned a lot by being involved and watching.”
The Kiwi may have a point but those sentiments won’t endear him to Craig Joubert or any of the other match officials next Saturday.
As ever the coach chose to ignore some ugly truths, not least the fact that the Wallabies missed five kicks at goal. Furthermore they played most of the second half with a flanker running at inside centre and ended the game with a scrum-half on the wing, having lost Christian Leali’ifano after 52 seconds. The Lions dominated possession and still only scored two tries, even if George North will go to his grave insisting that his disallowed second try was good.
The giant Welsh winger enjoyed a ding-dong battle with his opposite number Israel Folau that the Wallaby just shaded. Gatland admitted that the world-renowned sprint trainer Frans Bosch declared that he had only worked with two world-class athletes in rugby. One was North, the other Folau, and they proved the best players on the park.
Folau had already scored his first, thanks in largely to Will Genia’s sense of adventure, when North latched on to a loose clearance kick by Berrick Barnes. Pat McCabe was the first defender beaten and Folau arguably should have made better efforts to close down the danger man because once the line was broken there was no stopping the big winger.
Anything you can do... Folau answered in kind when he got on the end of a rare flowing move from the men in gold. The danger looked limited when he collected the ball on the 22-metre line with defenders in place. The danger looked a whole lot worse a few seconds later when he had stepped and fended his way to the line.
It was only appropriate that when North was diving over in the corner for what he hoped would be his second touchdown it was Folau who managed to nudge a little piece of the Welshman into touch. Folau then snatched a bouncing ball out of North’s hands to give the Wallabies the attacking position from which Beale launched his two kicks to nothing.
When asked what he was thinking when he collected the ball just before his try, North answered: “Just run! Just get the ball and run.” Gatland shares his winger’s ability to simplify life.
“We’re well aware of what happened in 2001,” said the coach by way of conclusion. “We could have lost tonight but no matter what happens you go to the last day and you’re still in the series and we have an opportunity to wrap it up next week.”