Luck of the Lions
Stuart Barnes considers the luck of the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English after the Lions' first Test win.
Last Updated: 25/06/13 10:31am
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.
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.