Iain Morrison: Rugby culture clash goes Lions’ way

Richie Gray of the Lions tackles James Hanson of the Reds. Picture: AP

Richie Gray of the Lions tackles James Hanson of the Reds. Picture: AP

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THIS was so much more than just a game of rugby, this was a clash of rugby culture, philosophy and outlook. It pitted south against north, running against kicking, power and strength against skill and finesse and it may just have offered everyone a sneak preview of things to come.

It will come as a huge relief to Warren Gatland that his side beat dangerous and determined opposition. It will worry the coach no end that his side managed just one try all afternoon despite having the lion’s share of possession.

This series has been billed as the Lions forwards against the Wallabies backs although on yesterday’s evidence that is far too simplistic. George North was just one of the tourists’ quick men who did his prospects of a Test start no harm whatsoever with several barnstorming runs, one of which should have resulted in a try for Sam Warburton. The skipper could not persuade the referee that he had grounded that one properly and he also missed a bad tackle for the Reds’ first try so the Welsh openside has it all to do.

While the Reds kept the pace high and ran everything at the visitors, they could not win a set piece for love nor money. In the first half alone, they lost at least four lineouts and two of them were five metres from the Lions’ line.

The set scrum was little better as the Lions bossed and bullied their way through this match, winning penalties at almost every scrum. The one exception was five metres from the Reds’ own try line when a re-set scrum collapsed and the French referee Jerome Garces took the easy option of turning a Nelsonian blind eye to the problem. Play ran on and the Reds won a turnover.

Queensland started this match like it might have been the last they ever played, with skipper and playmaker Quade Cooper finding acres of space on the flanks after tapping almost every penalty that came his way, even one or two deep inside his own 22. This early onslaught meant that Stuart Hogg was just about the busiest man on the field: at times it seemed like the Scot was the only thing standing between the Reds and an unassailable lead on the score board.

Hogg had to make a tackle on Reds centre Ben Tapuai as early as the fourth minute just to keep the Lions line intact. When he wasn’t making tackles, Hogg was fielding kicks and sparking counter-attacks. In one little cameo Hogg caught Cooper’s kick, hoofed the ball up-field and then caught the Reds stand-off who had collected Hogg’s own clearance.

Reds winger Luke Morahan scored a brilliant solo try in the first half which included a chip over the fullback and while Hogg got back to make the tackle, momentum carried the winger over the line with the Scot along for the ride. Hogg even managed a turnover at the breakdown in the second half which is not an area that the fullback excels in.

After such an afternoon it seems pernicious to talk about errors but competition is tight and Hogg made two, one in each half. The first was when he countered without any help from his friends, found himself isolated and was helpless as the Reds forwards swept over him like a tide. The second occurred just as the Reds threatened to haul themselves back into this match when Hogg bent to pick up a Cooper kick, lifted his eyes to see how much time he had and fumbled the ball forward. They were two small spots on an otherwise excellent performance from the youngster.

If he was guilty of anything else then so too were a good few of his colleagues, playing a little too much rugby in the wrong areas of the field because an open, exciting game was always going to favour the home team. While Queensland enjoyed plenty of attacking opportunities in the first half, they were pegged back inside their own 22 for long periods of the second thanks to a Lions pack that grew in stature the longer this match progressed, and Richie Gray played his part in what was only his second run-out in three months.

For reasons only they know, the Reds seemed to target the big man at the re-starts and he collected them with ease. For reasons that only they know, the Lions largely ignored him at the sidelines, with just a couple of throws headed his way. Gray made way for Paul O’Connell on the 64th minute just after the Reds’ second try but only after impressing with his athleticism and tackling around the field.

Gray is fast getting back up to speed and he will be there or thereabouts when the Lions return to Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium in two weeks’ time for the first Test match of this series.

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