It was Leigh Halfpenny chosen to kick for the Lions in this Test series with Australia and it was not until the final kick of the second Test that the Wales full-back showed any hint of fallibility under pressure, his late, late, long-range penalty that would have delivered glory for the 2013 tourists coming up short and a little wide.
Halfpenny had gone into the game at Etihad Stadium with a 93 per cent success rate off the tee during this tour, form that saw Ireland fly-half Sexton overlooked as a place kicker, left to concentrate on his playmaking in the red No 10 jersey of the Lions.
Sexton knows the feeling of failure, his poor form with the boot costing him a starting place during Ireland’s 2011 World Cup campaign and he could readily empathise with Halfpenny as he surveyed the scene on the Melbourne pitch in the aftermath of the 16-15 defeat and was not prepared to lay the blame solely at the kicker’s door.
“It was a tough ask for Leigh to hit that,” Sexton said. “It was all of 50 metres or so, so it was an extremely difficult kick. Also, it was the last kick of the game and with everything that was riding on it he had to get it right. It’s small margins but you can’t look at one man. There was plenty wrong with our performance as a team. It didn’t come down to one kick — we need to examine how we played.
“We probably felt he could get the kick, and Leigh felt he could too. We’ve seen him knock them over from that kind of distance before, but it’s right on his range. It was a very tough kick, and you have to also remember how tired he must have been right at the death.”
Sexton admitted that as welcome as a victory would have been, the Lions’ performance on Saturday did not deserve it and now must go to a final, deciding Test in Sydney this Saturday.
“We are all pretty devastated because we know just how close we came. It’s a tough one to take but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we didn’t deserve to win.
“We were 1-0 up and we should have gone 2-0 up, and we didn’t. At times it felt we were wishing the game to finish, rather than going out and going after it. That’s how I felt, anyway.
“We knew it was small margins last week, and it was the same this week. It comes down to taking your chances. We had chances to score tries — tries win games — and they took their chance at the end.”
Another player who could perfectly understand Halfpenny’s devastation at the missed kick was Australia full-back Kurtley Beale, who had suffered similar heartbreak seven days earlier when slipping as he attempted to boot the Wallabies to victory with time up in Brisbane.
“It was a big ask, but he’d been striking the ball well all series — I think he’d only missed two,” Beale said. “We were just very lucky in the end, but full credit to our guys for sticking to it for the full 80.
“I was praying a little bit [that Halfpenny would miss]. I was in the same position last week. It’s a big kick, a massive kick, and there’s a lot of things going through your head. He was striking the ball pretty well, really well, and it just fell short by a couple of metres. We were pretty lucky.”
Beale had led a charmed life all week, having escpaed punishment, for now, for his night out with team-mate James O’Connor on the night their club, the Melbourne Rebels, played the Lions. To the chagrin of Wallabies head coach Robbie Deans, the pair were photographed with a Lions supporter in a fast-food outlet at 3:50am on Wednesday morning and yesterday fly-half O’Connor kicked off the Australian press conference with a statement on behalf of himself and Beale.
“We’ve spoken to Robbie and to the team and, although we didn’t break team protocol, it was a lack of judgement on our behalf. It’s not ideal preparation during a Test week and it won’t happen again. We’ll be better for it. As far as we’re concerned it’s a closed issue now.”
O’Connor, though, did not appear too contrite and when questions followed he insisted the issue was “done and dusted”, despite captain James Horwill saying last Friday that the miscreants’ error of judgement would be revisited by the senior player group after the series.
Asked instead if he had learned any lessons from the episode, O’Connor failed to convince when he replied: “Don’t go to Burger King in the early morning,” before adding: “It was an error of judgement. You’ve got to be smarter than that.”