The Wallabies jumped up off the canvas and delivered a telling blow to the Lions’ dreams of winning their first series since 1997.
Australia 16-18 British & Irish Lions
Scorers: Australia: Try: Ashley-Cooper Conv: Leali’ifano Pen: Leali’ifano (3). Lions: Try: Conv: Pen: Halfpenny (5).
Referee: C Joubert (SA)
Whether it will prove a decisive setback or a temporary inconvenience will only unfold when the dust settles in Sydney but any dreams of a 3-0 cakewalk are a thing of the past.
A dull, edgy, error-strewn affair was stumbling towards the finish line with the Lions leading by five penalties to three when the Wallabies signalled their intentions by opting for a set scrum instead of kicking at goal inside the final ten minutes. That move resulted in yet another knock on in a game that wasn’t short of them but the Wallabies kept their nerve and, vitally, kept attacking with the ball in hand until
James O’Connor’s angle of run held Jon Davies’ drift just long enough to allow Adam Ashley-Cooper to squeeze past him on the outside.
Christian Leali’ifano stepped up to kick the conversion and, with perfect four from four figures on the night, Wallaby fans will imagine that the series would already be in their pockets had the inside centre lasted longer than the 52 seconds that he managed in Brisbane where the Wallabies missed five kicks.
There was still three minutes to play. O’Connor kicked straight to touch after the ball was passed back into the 22 so the Lions had one last attacking lineout, which they contrived to lose. Even at the death Leigh Halfpenny had a long-range penalty with the last kick of the game to win the match.
He didn’t slip, as Kurtley Beale had done one week ago in the exact same circumstances, but he didn’t quite catch the ball with his usual authority and it fell short of the sticks. It was only appropriate that it fell to man of the match Will Genia to hoof it into the stands to signal the end of the game.
“We didn’t take our chances,” said a disappointed Jonny Sexton in the aftermath, “we didn’t control the set piece well enough. We all made mistakes so we didn’t deserve to win.”
It was a succinct summary of the Lions’ night, especially their set-piece woes. The scrum contest was an oddity in that it was an actual contest.
The occasional scrum went to deck but most of them went backwards and forwards which was a novelty. Neither side gained complete control but both teams conceded penalties’ a plenty, two by Mako Vunipola and three by the Wallabies. The Lions lost two lineout throws, at least two restarts and they even suffered the ignominy of losing their own feed at one set scrum. For the second Saturday in succession the sole Scot on the bench stayed there for the entire 80 minutes when the game cried out for the authority that Ryan Grant and Richie Gray, not even in the match day squad, bring to the set piece.
“They obviously upped it a little bit,” Sexton continued. “I haven’t seen the try yet but we kept letting them get on the front foot, you know, the runners off (Will) Genia just got onto the front foot again. I suppose we were worried about giving away penalties and didn’t manage to slow the ball up. We paid the price at the end, they obviously went over for a good try.
“We’d one last chance at the lineout but we obviously didn’t get it and Leigh (Halfpenny) had a long-range attempt but it was a tough ask in the last play of the game from over 50 metres so we’ll look at our performance as a team and not at that one kick I suppose.”
When the Lions look at their performance they will see that Sexton is right because if it hadn’t been for Halfpenny’s boot they wouldn’t have scored at all.
The match statistics indicate that the tourists failed to make a single break of the Wallaby defensive line all match and the top five Australian carriers all ran further than the Lions’ number one who happened to be the Irish out half. The Lions reached seven phases once in the game, the Wallabies managed it five times. The little rugby that was on show in this desperately disappointing match came from the home side.
“We planned to play in the right areas of the pitch and at times, when we called for the ball to get at them for some reason it didn’t come,” said Sexton. “Obviously they put us under a lot of pressure at scrum and lineout but we had two or three chances to score and you have to take them at this level.”
“At times it felt like we were just wishing the game to finish rather than going out and going after it. That’s what I felt anyway.”
When Sexton is done tearing up the turf, a career as an analyst beckons because he nailed it in that final phrase. The Wallabies were playing to win, the Lions were playing not to lose and both teams got their just deserts.
Australia: Beale, Folau, Ashley-Cooper, Leali’ifano, Tomane; O’Connor, Genia; Robinson (Slipper 61 min), Moore, Alexander (Kepu 58 min), Horwill, Douglas (Simmons 52 min), Mowen, Hooper, Palu (Gill 61 min).
British and Irish Lions: Halfpenny, Bowe, O’Driscoll, Davies, North; Sexton, B Youngs (Murray 53 min); Vunipola, T Youngs (Hibbard 55 min), A Jones (Cole 58 min), A-W Jones, Parling, Lydiate, Warburton (Croft 66 min), Heaslip (O’Brien 63 min).