Almost unnoticed as the entire Lions squad shared hugs and high fives on the halfway line, the Wallaby team were wrapped in a huddle in the corner of the field. You can just imagine the call to arms from their captain James Horwill after giving everything to a magnificent Test match in the most trying of circumstances.
From the Lions perspective, they will be thrilled to have claimed a victory from a game which they should have lost.
Lions’ tours of the past are riddled with hard luck stories so to get out of jail after a thrilling spectacle, it was no surprise that everyone was feeling a little dizzy afterwards.
Just think back to the second Test at Loftus Versfeld against South Africa four years ago when the Lions were completely derailed by a sequence of injuries to props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones within a minute of each other. They were followed from the field soon after by Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll and the series quickly slipped away.
After just 80 minutes of rugby, the Wallabies already find themselves in a similar position.
With their back-line resources stretched to breaking point, they have a massive hill to climb.
I wrote last week how, rather disparagingly, Robbie Deans replied when asked why Queensland star Quade Cooper wasn’t in the squad he said “I don’t need him, mate.”
Well I have news for you Robbie — you do now.
However we already know that is not going to happen.
There are a number of key components required to win any Test match but in a series that is going to be as tight as this one, place kicking has to be top of the list. Australia have had issues on that front for a long time, so much so that when Deans was asked Thursday who would be his starting kicker, he refused to confirm the identity of the player.
He must have had sleepless nights thinking about who in his squad was capable of stepping forward and slotting a vital penalty at the death to seal a tight Test. With that scenario fast becoming a reality and not one but two chances in the final minutes to secure a historic win, his nightmare became a reality.
It transpired that new cap Christian Leali’ifano, who has been the most consistent Australian kicker in this season’s Super 15, was designated to assume the mantle and solve a long-standing issue. The fact that he lasted all of 43 seconds before being mangled by Jonathan Davies opened the wound once more.
Kurtley Beale, whose genius shone through immediately as he arrived on the field for the hapless Berrick Barnes, ended as the villain of the piece, which sours matters even further given his recent personal problems. James O’Connor, who never rose to the challenge at out-half, was immediately recast in a role he has never looked comfortable with once Leali’ifano was forced off. He enjoyed a measly 25% return from his four kicks and between him and the unfortunate Beale, Australia left 14 points behind them. It cost them the match.
Every now and then, you get one of those special Tests that you just know will linger long in memory. The opening half of this contest was such an occasion. Three nasty injuries in succession which decimated the Wallaby back-line may have diluted the magnificence of the clash after the break but certainly not the drama.
George North’s worth to the Lions was spectacularly highlighted by his sublime try, a potent mix of Jonah Lomu and Shane Williams at their best, after the Wallabies had stretched into the lead against the run of play. But even the giant Welsh winger’s performance was overshadowed by the man opposing him on, the multi-talented debutant Israel Folau. A new star of the union game stepped forward to mesmerise. Rarely has a debutant contributed so spectacularly in a game of this importance.
Folau is a sporting freak. To achieve what he did after just 17 games in the union code after come from Australian Rules was extraordinary. With Barnes already ruled out of the second Test, the prospect of Folau switching to his favoured role at full-back offers the Wallabies a chink of light.
The Lions for their part were thrilled to get out of this one with the win their first-half performance merited. At times they were brilliant with Jonny Sexton and O’Driscoll pulling the strings. Sexton varied his game superbly with some clever chips in behind the Wallaby back-line supplementing his excellent running game. Beside him his former Leinster colleague continued to defy the passage of time with yet another special performance.
The quality of O’Driscoll’s passing and off-loading under pressure still separates him from the rest, just over 14 years after he made his international debut a few miles up the road at Ballymore. In a game increasingly dominated by brute force, his speed of thought, feet and hand are still light years ahead. He more than anyone deserves a Lions series win.
That could now come to fruition as soon as Saturday night in Melbourne when, in all probability, the Lions will be even stronger than in the opening Test.
While Manu Tuilagi and Tommy Bowe are both likely to be available for selection, the Australians are down to the bare bones in the backs and will be required to carry out a complete overhaul of their three-quarter line.
Beale, who lit up the stadium in the second half with some inspirational broken field running, will definitely start but Deans will have to face the reality that O’Connor just isn’t an international out-half. He is a link player and offers little by way of game management.
The fact that Australia should have won this Test, despite the injury carnage that transpired behind the scrum, can be traced to the creative genius of Will Genia. He is the heart and soul of this Australian side, and in tandem with Folau, almost delivered the unlikeliest of victories. Had Beale stole it at the death, by common consensus amongst the former Wallabies that I spoke to afterwards, it would have been their bravest victory ever.
Right now all the aces are with the Lions who will benefit enormously from Saturday’s experience. They have so much more to offer, especially in attack, and must now go bald-headed to close out the series before the Wallabies have time to draw breath.