Tom English: Christian stuns Lions to level series

Australia's Christian Leal'ifano runs clear of Tommy Bowe. Picture: Getty
Australia's Christian Leal'ifano runs clear of Tommy Bowe. Picture: Getty
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IN THE conventional sense, this was not a great Test match. Too many errors, too little creativity, not nearly enough in the way of great attacking play and individual moments of brilliance from players who are well capable of all of those things.

This was sensation of a different kind. Pressure rugby that captivated from first minute to last. Nervous and fractious and glorious in its own way.

Leigh Halfpenny misses a last-gasp penalty. Picture: PA

Leigh Halfpenny misses a last-gasp penalty. Picture: PA

To see Australia come back from adversity was to marvel at their mentality. If the Wallabies collective happened to be a boxer they’d have been in the ring with half vision and little strength – and still flailing away in victory. So many injuries last week and so much bravery. Their tears at the end told the story of what this meant to them. The ghostly demeanour of some of the Lions told you everything about their own haunting experience.

The James Horwill episode in the first Test has left a bitter taste but the Australians have to be applauded for taking control of this match when it looked like it was heading away from them, their callow centre, Christian Leali’ifano, rearranging his scrambled senses following his early exit a week ago then kicking what proved to be the decisive conversion with the kind of composure that made you want to salute him despite the natural tendency being one of wanting to scream.

The Lions had lost their way badly after the hour mark, right after what appeared to be a series-defining scrum in their favour. The battered and beleaguered Mako Vunipola had had such a miserable time up until that point that it was a minor miracle that he was still on the field to scrum down again in the 62nd minute, a scrum that saw the full venom of the Lions unleashed with a shove that not just won a penalty, that Leigh Halfpenny kicked for a 15-9 lead, but also belittled the Aussies. It was a moment of such humiliation for the Wallaby forwards that you started thinking of Lions glory. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe the sight of the winning line and a historic series victory was glimpsed by too many men in red and they got freaked by it. For they lost all control thereafter.

The rest of the day was all about Wallaby gold taking the game to rapidly retreating Lions, and Lord how they pulled it off.

Of course, in those seconds of almost surreal tension right at the death, Halfpenny had his chance to not so much write as carve his name in the annals but this time too much was asked of the Welshman. His metronomic accuracy helped camouflage deficiencies in the Lions performance last week and virtually stole the Test from under the nose of the outrageously unfortunate Wallabies, but a second act of robbery and a second cover-up of issues in the Lions team was beyond him.

And there was justice in that. For all that we adore the Lions, only the most one-eyed observer could grumble about the result. Australia deserved the win. Sydney will be a wonderful setting for the end-game. The Aussies will be relieved that they have ensured that it will be the decider and, if the Lions are true to themselves, then they will accept that a third game is required to settle, once and for all, who is best. Halfpenny’s last kick would have given the Lions a fortunate series win, the first since 1997 in South Africa. But it would not have been deserved. Welcome, for sure, but 2-0 would have been undeserved based on what we have seen so far.

This was a Test where defence triumphed, where some of the great attackers hardly got a sliver of space until late on when Israel Folau managed to weave some magic and put Australia firmly on the front foot. George North? Tommy Bowe? Brian O’Driscoll? Their best work was done at the coal-face, keeping that defensive line intact for the longest time. It was that type of Test. Scrums, tackles, more scrums, more tackles.

And momentum shifts galore. Early on, the Lions possessed a wondrous intensity, beginning like dervishes, getting joy at the breakdown through Sam Warburton where last week there was only frustration. There was a huge Lions lineout maul in the seventh minute. Then another that brought a penalty and the lead.

The impetus changed again – and would change several times afterwards – when Vunipola was targeted in the scrum. Such refereeing calls are sometimes arbitrary – a lot of guesswork goes on in deciding the bad guy when a scrum goes down – but Vunipola is a very average scrummager and his reputation went before him. Craig Joubert pinged him, pinged him and pinged him again. It was a mistake by Warren Gatland to start him, one he will surely not make again. If Alex Corbisiero is fit, then the Englishman plays on Saturday. If not, it must by Ryan Grant. It should have been Grant yesterday.

These Wallabies are relentless and all the more so when the Lions give them the opportunity. Paul O’Connell’s leadership was missed badly. So, too, his calm head in a crisis. And his belligerence. The Wallabies came in waves, lost the ball and were allowed to come again. For the last half an hour the Lions were hanging on. Catenaccio is not a concept that sits well in rugby.

So here we are, 1-1. Where does the momentum lie? With the Wallabies, for sure, but if there is any justice then they will lose their captain, Horwill, when he comes before the appeal hearing on Monday. Horwill, along with Michael Hooper, was a colossus of the Wallaby pack. Fact is that his stamp on Alun-Wyn Jones in Brisbane should have seen him sitting anxiously in the stand not driving in the tight of the second Test.

So many questions now. Will Horwill be banned? Will Jamie Roberts be fit? How about Corbisiero? And Mike Phillips? And what of Warburton, excellent in defeat, who is now a grave injury doubt with a troublesome hamstring? The Lions need more ball-carriers, more thrust, more ambition. Sean O’Brien should come in. So, too, Richard Hibbard.

There’s no end of warriors, but the worriers are many and most of them are wearing red. Flashbacks to 2001. It’s eerie. Lions win the first Test and are comfortable up until half-time in the second, whereupon greatness slips through their fingers like falling sand. The Wallabies are buoyant, but the Lions are alive. Defeated but still good enough if they can find their best stuff, which they clearly have not done as yet. What a tumultuous week lies in store.