Australia 16 British & Irish Lions 15
They all have consequences and particularly so for the British and Irish Lions, whose failure to make the right ones in Melbourne on Saturday means they now face an anxious week ahead of a series decider with Australia in five days.
The Lions went into the second Test at Etihad Stadium with glory in their sights as they stood 80 minutes away from a first series victory since 1997, leading the Wallabies 1-0 after that narrow win in the Brisbane opener a week previously.
Warren Gatland’s team were in fact only 10 minutes from accomplishing their mission of emulating the series win over South Africa 16 years ago, leading Robbie Deans’ home side 15-9 after full-back Leigh Halfpenny had edged his kicking contest with Australia inside centre Christian Leali’ifano.
Yet something had not felt right all evening and despite the six-point advantage heading into the final minutes, the Lions had never seemed quite that much in control.
Their early dominance at the breakdown, coupled with Halfpenny’s golden boot, was not quite enough to put away a side which, in true Australian style, has plenty of “ticker” and never knows when it is beaten.
The Lions had also profited greatly from an impressive lineout maul which had put the Wallabies on the back foot, their No 8 Wycliff Palu twice pulling it down and conceding penalties which led to a stern warning from referee Craig Joubert and the threat of a yellow card, all inside the first 10 minutes.
So why captain Sam Warburton decided to take three points instead of instructing fly-half Jonny Sexton to kick for the corner and piling the pressure back on Palu and his pack is puzzling, perhaps betraying an early reticence to go for the jugular.
Contrast that with Warburton’s opposite number James Horwill, who with the clock showing eight minutes to go and his side six points in arrears, shunned the chance of an easy three points and instead opted for a scrum six metres from the line.
There was plenty of time left to kick for goal and get back upfield for a winning try but the Australian captain placed his faith in a front row which had held their own against the Lions without ever dominating. It was a brave decision, part logic, part psychology, after a sustained period of pressure on the tourists’ line, the visitors seemingly under orders just to clear their lines and give the Wallabies fresh opportunities to attack.
Horwill got the perfect response, his reward quick ball from the base of the scrum and some more defence-stretching phases before Adam Ashley-Cooper left Jon Davies tackling air as he spotted some daylight and scored the decisive try which would win Australia the game and level the series.
“We were keen for that,” Wallabies head coach Deans said of Horwill’s decision to go for the try and break the deadlock in a far from thrilling encounter pockmarked by handling errors from the Australians and a worryingly withdrawn Lions side.
“I don’t know if the message got through but James probably made that decision off his own back, so we’re on the right page. It was good that the team had that mindset in terms of what they were seeking from the game. There’s risk in any decision that you make, but most importantly it reflected the opportunity that the group saw and what they believed they could make of that.
“You’ve got to push the envelope in order to win. We’ll never beat a side as able and experienced as this Lions side without chancing our arm. So those are the decisions that the players make in the moment.”
Deans implied he could put up with the errors if the risk produced a reward.
“There’s a tipping point as well. While we make errors early we also ask a lot early and some of those demands are the point of difference at the far end.
“Who knows what it is that just opens up that half-gap, so you’ve got to keep asking, keep probing, you’ve got to ask yourself first and hopefully, as we did in the last few minutes, build some momentum and keep the ball long enough to actually exploit what’s there. We got to that point on a couple of occasions but released the pressure ourselves prior to that. When it came down to it and we had to, we got it done.”
Oh for some similar risk-taking and bold decision-making from the Lions, who seemed to withdraw into a shell the longer the game went on, seemingly straitjacketed by the prospect of delivering a long-awaited series victory.
They very nearly got it, though. Halfpenny presented with a long-range penalty to seal the deal with time up, the dependable boot failing him at the crucial moment as the 55m kick fell short and into the hands of Will Genia, who turned and hoofed the ball into row Z behind the Australian posts to begin joyous celebrations and start an inquest within the Lions’ coaching think-tank.
“I was really pleased with the first half. I thought our breakdown stuff was good and we affected a lot of turnovers and we defended very well,” Gatland said.
“In the second half, the disappointing thing was that we didn’t control territory as well as we’d done in the first half. We dominated that aspect of the game in the first half but in the second half we weren’t as strong there. Unfortunately there were a couple of critical turnovers which allowed them to keep the pressure on us. That’s something that we need to improve on for next week.
“We saw how close the game was. We were pleased with the way we started, we were really pleased with our physicality. Defence dominated the game and the breakdown. We probably just weren’t as accurate as we needed to be in that second half in terms of allowing them a chance to get back into the game.”
Gatland will undoubtedly make changes for the final Test this Saturday, regardless of Warburton’s possible withdrawal due to a hamstring problem which forced him off after 67 minutes on Saturday.
Jon Davies’ shortcomings at inside centre were exposed in direct opposition to Leali’ifano and the likely return of fit-again Jamie Roberts should see the Lions’ outside backs better supplied, while Alex Corbisiero’s return from a calf strain should bolster the front row, where replacement loosehead Mako Vunipola had a real ding-dong with Aussie tighthead Ben Alexander.
And those changes could be the tip of the iceberg. With two Tests down and just one remaining at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium this Saturday, the aggregate score of the series leaves the Lions just a point to the good at 38 to 37 after 160 minutes. No wonder Deans described this series as a game of chess and this week represents a battle of coaching minds to break the impasse.
AUSTRALIA: K Beale; I Folau, A Ashley-Cooper (R Horne, 78), C Leali’ifano, J Tomane; J O’Connor, W Genia; B Robinson (J Slipper, 61), S Moore, B Alexander (S Kepu, 58); K Douglas (R Simmons, 53), J Horwill (captain); B Mowen, M Hooper, W Palu (L Gill, 61).
Replacements not used: S Fainga’a, N Phipps, R Horne, J Mogg.
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: L Halfpenny; T Bowe, B O’Driscoll, J Davies , G North; J Sexton, B Youngs (C Murray, 53); M Vunipola, T Youngs (R Hibbard, 56), A Jones (D Cole, 59); A W Jones, G Parling; D Lydiate, S Warburton (captain, T Croft, 67), J Heaslip (S O’Brien, 63).
Replacements not used: R Grant, O Farrell, A Cuthbert.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa).
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved