WARREN Gatland was suitably subdued after the Wallabies came from behind to squash any immediate hopes he may have harboured of writing his name into the history books.
Not only had Australia picked his pocket in the final five minutes but his captain was forced from the field with a hamstring injury and, according to all the rumours flying about the Etihad Stadium, the citing officer was looking with especial interest at one incident from the game when Mako Vunipola’s shoulder emerged victorious in a brief, one-sided battle with Adam Ashley-Copper’s face.
“One all, we’ve got next week, it’s a big game,” the Kiwi coach put on his best brave face. “We’ll look after ourselves over the next few days and look forward to next week. I’m excited about it.
“Last week was close, another close one tonight that could have gone either way. In fairness to Australia they kept going for 80 minutes. It was a tough Test match.
“I was pretty pleased with the first half. I think probably in the second half we didn’t control territory as well as we could have done. We dominated that aspect of the game in the first half, second half we weren’t as strong there.”
His Lions’ squad will now avoid the hullabaloo of Sydney and instead they plan to lick their wounds at the relatively obscure setting of Noosa on the east coast of Australia, about two hours drive north of Brisbane. While there Gatland will hope to welcome some key players back to action in the sea-side resort – not least Jamie Roberts and Alex Corbisiero who should provide some oomph up front.
When quizzed about the set scrum, Gatland was loath to say anything very much until he had surveyed the footage but he won’t need to rewind the tape too often to realise that Vunipola cost his side dearly on the night. His selection at loosehead undermined the Lions’ scrum while the tourists’ lineout lost at least two throws, including one crucial attacking opportunity in the final few minutes, with several other balls so scrappy as to be almost useless.
Take away the Lions’ set piece and you take away much of what they are about. Take away their goal kicking as well and you are home and hosed as the Wallabies will confirm. It is wrong to point the finger at Leigh Halfpenny but he is normally good from range and both penalties he missed, his first and his last, were within his usual range as his coach conceded.
“I’ve seen him hit them from there before but he just didn’t strike that one well enough,” said Gatland of his injury time effort. “Chance to be a hero in that moment but unfortunately he hasn’t hit it quite as well as sometimes he is capable of doing.
“He is obviously disappointed with himself. He’s still kicked incredibly well. One that’s hit the cross bar in the first half and that’s the difference between the two sides, and he’s missed a 55 metre kick at the death to win it. He’s such a professional, he obviously realises the significance of the kick at the end and he’s just disappointed he’s missed it.”
The deciding Test may come down to which captain is available to lead his team on to the field. Australian skipper James Horwill has a disciplinary hearing tomorrow for an incident in the Brisbane match when his boot caught Alun-Wyn Jones in the face. He was exonerated by one judicial officer but the IRB stepped in and demanded a re-count. If he gets off for a second time, and the Wallabies are filthy with the IRB for undermining due process, the momentum will surely be behind the Wallabies for the Sydney decider, especially if the Lions lose their skipper to that hamstring injury.
“I’ll do anything I can to play in that [third Test],” said Warburton. “If we win next week it will be in more dramatic fashion than it would have been if we’d won this week. There is everything to play for. It’s the dream situation to be in, to have the opportunity to win a Test series.”
Two matches won by a total of three points with one final Test in Sydney to decide the series. This one is going all the way to the wire.