The British and Irish Lions rugby team played the first test in their three match series against Australia yesterday. In Brisbane, on a pitch that looked like it had taken in a fair bit of rain in recent times. This was important at the end of the game…
The Lions concept – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales coming together with a common objective – is a great one. Shame we can’t do it more in other walks of life. The team is cobbled together, without too much practice, but the quality of the players ensures that they always give their opponents a good game. Every four years they assemble to tour either Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. They are visited in rotation and 2013 was the turn of Australia.
The selection process is always a bit controversial. Do you have a good spread of players from all countries or go for whoever you think is best even if that means one country dominates? Generally it tends to be a compromise, although you have to err towards the latter. But there was a bit of a sour taste this time (for us English), because head coach, New Zealander Warren Gatland went heavily for Welsh players and minimised the England contribution. His day job is head coach of Wales. And yes, they did win the Six Nations, but not as brilliantly as the selection suggested. The Welsh bias meant that Chris Robshaw, England captain, man of the match in two Six Nations games, heroic against New Zealand in the Autumn, wasn’t selected. OK, I write as a Quins fan, but I thought that was an insult to Robbo. And is Danny Care a lesser scrum half than Conor Murray of Ireland?. Ireland, who came fifth in the Six Nations? Mike Brown a worse bet as full back/wing than the Scots, Maitland and Hogg?
So it took me a bit of time to start caring about this Lions tour, but as it progressed, as the big day neared, it was hard to resist. You forget those club and country rivalries and focus on the Lions.
And this morning, ready for the 11 am kick off, British time, I dug out my retro Lions shirt and headed to the pub to meet my friend Jon and his daughter Connie to watch the game.
And what a game it was! The Lions sneaked a win, 23-21. It was an exhilarating, messy game. Very open, both sides unable to exert control. Both maybe a bit rusty at this highest level, the Lions because they only come together once every four years, the Aussies because they hadn’t played a test since December.
The Lions, as expected, were stronger at the set pieces, the scrum and line out (until near the end of the game), but Australia are so brilliant in open play and, against the run of early play, scored a superb opportunist try, after their scrum half Will Genia jinked through a dozy Lions defence and set Aussie debutant Israel Folau free. Folau is a phenomenon – he has played rugby league, Aussie rules football and now rugby union, at the highest level.
But the Lions have their own phenomenon, winger George North of Wales (though English born). Massive and fast. He fielded a high kick from the Aussies deep in his own half, assessed the options and motored. Through a couple of Aussie midfield tackles, then a jink passed the full back, Berrick Barnes and then a disdainful salute to Genia (see top photo) as he raced over the try line. A sixty yard solo effort. Amazing!
Suddenly, every time he got the ball, anticipation rose. Great when you have a player like that. Manu Tuilagi is similar for England, and might yet be for the Lions, if he recovers from his shoulder injury. North did go over for another try, but it was disallowed – rightly – after the TV replays showed that his elbow went out of play just before he touched it down. Small margins…
There were two more tries in the game, both also brilliant individual efforts. Folau got another for Australia; Alex Cuthbert, the other Lions wing, did his bit too. All four tries in the game were spectacular. Indicative of the quality of the players, or was there also an element of not-quite-organised defences? Both, I’d say, but all to the good for entertainment value.
Australia were very unlucky with injuries. Three of their backs had to go off with head/neck injuries after collisions, sometimes with their own colleagues. Leali’ifano (after a minute), Barnes and the replacement for Leali’ifano, McCabe. And near the end, Ashley-Cooper, who had been playing for a while with a dislocated shoulder. But they coped and remained a huge threat. And towards the end of the game, something odd happened. The Lions brought on replacements for all their front row players, Adam Jones, Tom Youngs and Alex Corbisiero. All had played very well, but it’s normal to bring on fresh legs in this area and the replacements, Vunipola, Hibbard and Cole, are all great players. We expected the Lions to ratchet up the pressure. Instead, the Aussies slowly started to dominate the forward battle, including the scrums. This was a potential game-loser for the Lions, because they were giving away penalties, with a ref who had already been hard on them at the breakdown.
This was when the key difference between the two teams came into play. The Lions had Leigh Halfpenny, who converted all but one of his six kicks. The Aussies had James O’Connor and later Kurtley Beale, who missed five between them. Beale was particularly unfortunate because he missed two penalties in the last few minutes, either of which would have won Australia the game. The last was actually the final act of the game. It was from quite a long way out, but fairly straight. He’d scored one from further when he first came on.
Ahhh, it looked like the Lions were going to lose with the last kick of the game…
But no, Beale slipped on the cut-up pitch and completely miscued. A horrible end for him, just back in the Australian squad after drink and other problems. Hope it doesn’t send him back to rehab. It’s only a game, but then, it’s a massive game, and shreds the nerves.
Phew! The Lions did it. It wasn’t daylight robbery – the game overall was pretty evenly matched. There were four brilliant tries. But if the Aussies had taken a normal percentage of their kicks they would have won. They will be gutted.
Second test next Saturday. I can see the Lions winning again it because they will have learned a lot about themselves today, and will correct some of the weaker areas. They could also have people like Tuilagi and Irish wing, Tommy Bowe, back from injury. You could say the same about the Aussies in terms of getting their act together, but how many of their players who went off injured will be ready to return?
And will they recover from that kicking nightmare?
Fingers crossed… NO!
(Photos from Google Images)