This is shaping up to be an incredible Test series.
The first Test had it all; sure purists can argue that neither technically nor tactically it was of the highest order but we had four tries, two of them unforgettable (the Will Genia inspired first try and the individual gem from George North) and the other two special enough under most circumstances.
It had a ferocity that failed to fizzle out at any stage during this belligerent, bruising encounter, controversy that has ignited as the week begins and the drama of Kurtley Beale having a kick to win the match with the last play of the game.
Now that the ashes of this red hot encounter are finally clearing a few observations can be made; firstly that Lady Luck walked arm in arm with the Lions all evening. The Wallabies had clearly insulted her sometime recently and were spurned in a manner most cruel.
Australia has been battered with far more serious injuries than the Lions - even taking the Jamie Roberts and loose head situation into account and they are hampered by a stubborn coach who refuses to accept James O' Connor is a world class winger, not fly half
Quotes of the week
The injury to Christian Leali'ifano within a minute disrupted the entire attacking structure of the Wallabies. Pat McCabe is a brave but limited warrior at inside centre whose distribution skills are his weak point. The plan to outstrip the Lions wide while James O'Connor held the defence at the fringes disappeared without a minute of the game being played.
The McCabe injury forced Australia into even more confusion with Michael Hooper shifting from the flank to the centre. The Lions won the match with Jonny Sexton teasing Alex Cuthbert into a gap between O' Connor and the makeshift centre that would not have existed had either man been a specialist; credit to the Lions for taking advantage of Australia's good fortune - although they should have finished Australia off at 20-12.
Praise for the Wallabies
Credit to Australia, too; immense credit in fact; three centres lost and a goal kicking fiasco. In normal circumstances they win the first Test. But this was anything but normal. Nor is Leigh Halfpenny; the gap in kicking class between him and the two Wallaby kickers was colossal. Then again, Leali'ifano was the designated goal kicker. Nothing went the Wallaby way.
And yet, and yet...had Beale not missed a relative sitter on 72 minutes and slipped with the final kick of the game it could all have been so very different, even with the Halfpenny factor and Lady Luck taking their side.
The Lions are 1-0 up but a long way from victory. The Wallabies are down but far from out. The bad fortune that fell upon them from a great height has moved in the direction of the Lions. The sense of an inexorable shift in the direction of the Lions grew with the citing of the outstanding Wallabies captain, James Horwill. I am not going to comment on the incident having not seen it live and only on small screens since but I will say that as he has let off and the news broke that Paul O' Connell had fractured his arm the series equilibrium swung towards the Wallabies for the first time.
Obviously the Lions have the lead but they did in 2001 and went on to lose the series, while in 1989 Australia smashed the Lions before being beaten up. An aside here; if you are reading the righteously indignant press remember that we called those 1989 Lions heroes when their tactics were reprehensible to either an Australian or neutral.
There is no conspiracy against the Lions just a few bad decisions. In 2009 Schalk Burger got away with a gouge and then there was the famous O' Driscoll spear tackle. However in 2005 spear tackling was a Southern Hemisphere epidemic. People who went berserk either did not see much Super Rugby or were trying to use the incident for their own ends (another political fiasco alas). Good and bad luck go around and come around.
On Saturday the luck went their way but who can begrudge the Lions after the epic 2009 series decider in Pretoria when they were utterly heroic but beaten by the world champions as injury heaped upon injury. It was rotten luck that day for the Lions, it went their way and against Australia Saturday. That is the beauty or cruelty of sport depending on the hemisphere from which you hail.
Australia has been battered with far more serious injuries than the Lions - even taking the Jamie Roberts and loose head situation into account and they are hampered by a stubborn coach who refuses to accept James O' Connor is a world class winger, not fly half. Still, that is Australia and no one else's concern.
The Lions will be concerned by the threat of a backlash although another O' Connor anti-cameo could see the Lions home; they will be concerned by the threat of Israel Folau (not a product of hype) but they will also know that they can play a lot better.
The scrum is another concern if Alex Corbisero is out but the Australians are hardly going to win the series at this set piece. If the Lions have to use power, pace and panache, subtlety as well as raw strength it will be all the greater for their glory and the future of European rugby.
Melbourne Rebels should be an entertaining game Tuesday night but all rugby roads are leading to Saturday; it will be spectacular - the wait has been worth it, four years for Lions fans and twelve for Wallabies. I fear that the series will be prolonged to Sydney. If it is the whole damn town is going to explode with excitement; the count for Saturday has already begun.
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Paul King says...
I had an epiphany last night. With every single scrum half not feeding straight at the scrum, why not get the Ref to feed it in! He's neutral and so it should go in straight. I believe the hooker taps (or used to) when he wants it in so the Ref will know when to feed. Plus he's closer to see any infringements. The linesmen will ensure the backs are not off side.
Posted 09:07 28th June 2013
William Black says...
The cream of 4 nations should not struggle to beat the aussies, we need to stop blaming the ref , stop blaming injuries , and play rugby . The aussies fought gamely despite all injuries and unusual selections . Round 2 comes on saturday , lets hope it all about the skills on show not lame excuses .
Posted 21:47 25th June 2013
Andrew Williams says...
Ian Gilhchrist - It's not that strange. The English are still moaning 10 years later about the referee in a RWC final that they won. No doubt the Brits will still be moaning about Saturday's ref for many years to come... even if they win the series. It's just what the Brits do. Having lived in the UK for many years, I am still amazed by the many column inches devoted to discussing referees both after and (more importantly) before matches. It's like a national sport. But I suppose that if my team completely failed to adapt to the referee (even though the opposition did), failed to "dominate" in the forwards like everyone kept telling us they would, and failed to put away an opposition who couldn't kick their goals and lost the majority of their backline... I'd probably try to find someone else to blame as well... Actually, scratch that, I'd just take the win and keep my mouth shut. But I'm not a Brit.
Posted 15:11 25th June 2013
Emmett Gracie says...
Laurence - missing a kick isn't bad luck, but having your first choice kicker knocked out in the first minute of the match is. Having a set piece to get the winning score through a backline move when your opposition have to play a flanker in mid field is good luck. Half the Lions admitting they failed as players to adapt to the refs interpretations despite weeks of preparation and most having played with him before doesn't count as bad luck. I don't much imagine you will complain that it was unfair if the Australian players fail to adjust to the ref who favours northern interpretations if the Lions clinch a decider in Sydney...?
Posted 14:34 25th June 2013
Ian Gilchrist says...
3 tests completed All Blacks v France. Not one mention of referees performances. All English and Irish referees. One test Lions v Australia. New Zealand referee condemned out of site. STRANGE.
Posted 22:47 24th June 2013
Mike Ward says...
Hi Stuart, I must say I thought the Lions performance against Australia was very disappointing. The Lions failed to close out the game in the last 20 minutes. I also thought the Lions back line was not good enough they did not once run at the number 7 Hooper.If I was Gatland I would make some changes for the second test. Tommy Bowe needs to come at wing. Jamie Roberts has to come in and I also think Sean O Brien should be on the starting team.
Posted 14:41 24th June 2013
Scott Reilly says...
Hi Stuart. Always love you column I'd like to know your opinion of the O'Driscoll/Davies partnership in the midfield. They seemed to get in each other's way at times. Considering O'Driscoll was at fault for a couple of early penalties and Roberts and Davies have so much more experience playing together, do you think it might be time to drop BOD to the bench? Hard and all as it is to say it. Cheers, Scott
Posted 14:40 24th June 2013
Gav Wild says...
Could not agree more about the dubious second try for the Lions. I was screaming for the Lions to win but Cuthberts try, whilst a great line from him, clearly O'Driscoll ran straight into O'Connor thus preventing O' Connor from moving across at the usual pace he would have done otherwise to effect a tackle
Posted 14:40 24th June 2013
Jd Daniels says...
Stuart, I know you and the Sky team are selling a product here but please try not to let all rationale leave the building. This match was a comedy of errors, exciting only because it was close. NZ and SA must be wondering why they didnt get such a poor Lions side. Then again, they rarely worry about the Lions sides they do get to meet. Australia are a poor side ravaged by injuries. The Lions look disjointed and have only the book of halfpenny to rely on. one great solo effort by North and a highly dubious second try. Is that really what all the hype is about.
Posted 13:37 24th June 2013
Laurence Robertson says...
You say the lions were lucky Stuart, but the Aussies got more than their fair share of help from the referee, who had a cockeyed view of the breakdown, gave a short avantage to the Lions which led to the first Wallaby try, who was at pains to remind the Lions that they had to "use it" when the ball was available and yet seemed to let the Aussies have all the time in the world to use the ball and who also several early Aussie engagements at the scrum which go. Granted the Aussies had very bad luck with injuries, but missing a kick isn't bad luck, it's bad execution.
Posted 13:03 24th June 2013
Mark Jones says...
Hi Stuart, Lions definitely rode their luck but it did not all go their own way. The injuries must have been a bitter pill for the Aussies but the missed kicks were poor execution. Any deflected ball seemed to jump right in to Wallaby hands and the sheer brilliance of the try Genia set up shouldn't mask the fact the ref had just cancelled a penalty advantage when the Lions hadn't got any advantage. If he felt it had gone on long enough then blow up and offer the Lions a kick at goal or to the corner, their decision not his. Also the Lions were guilty much later on but how was it not a yellow for blatantly killing our ball on their own line with defence in disarray and a try beckoning? These are not ambiguous decisions caused by the north/south refereeing divide, just pretty poor officiating. You were very fond of pointing out in commentary, with some justifcation, that if Halfpenny was a Wallaby the score would look very different, but equally the potential 12 point swing caused by Mr Pollock could equally have seen the match in a very different direction. I guess those are the breaks.
Posted 12:36 24th June 2013
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