Fortune favours the braver Wallabies

Australia’s momentous victory on Saturday night was a triumph of ambition over execution. The British and Irish Lions reached the three-quarter point with a six point lead and seemingly a stranglehold on the game. They had conceded fewer penalties, been more careful with their ball retention and were strong at the set piece. The anticipation of clinching a series-winning victory, however, appeared to weigh increasingly heavily on their shoulders. Instead of trying to finish their opposition off they went into their shell, content to run down the clock and hang on to their lead. They allowed the Wallabies to take the initiative and go on to score the try that earned them the win and levels the series.

 

The match was played in a spine-tingling atmosphere that only built as the second half wore on. It is to the great credit of Australia that they overcame a big deficit in penalties conceded – they also dropped the ball fourteen times – to prevail in a game which, just like the first test, wasn’t decided until the final kick. Lions’ full back Leigh Halfpenny’s long range penalty after the hooter landed short, mirroring Kurtley Beale’s effort in Brisbane (albeit that Halfpenny remained on his feet).

 

Israel Folau did not have the space he enjoyed in the first test but still lit up the occasion. Every touch was greeted with a huge roar from the home fans, who battled valiantly all night to match the decibel level of the massive Lions contingent. One grab in the first half, plucking a Will Genia cross-kick from way above the heads of the defenders would have been a contender for mark of the year if it had taken place in the game more regularly played here. He landed running and retained possession when tackled, his game incorporating elements of the various codes he has competed in. And he provided the comedy moment of the evening, going too high with an attempted tackle of opposite number George North and being marched backyards over the Welshman’s shoulder.

 

With the roof closed neither wind nor a damp ball could explain the handling errors. The maelstrom of noise, and the magnitude of the occasion, did so. The opening exchanges were edgy and there was little continuity to the game. The Lions then seemed to settle quicker than their hosts. They dominated territory and the penalty count in the first half, and their only concern when they turned around would have been that they didn’t have more breathing space on the scoreboard. The Wallabies targeted Mako Vunipola early, forcing him to collapse a couple of scrums and incur the referee’s opprobrium. The prop fought back, however, winning his own team scrum penalties and handing out the big hits in defence for which he is renowned in European club rugby. The second half opened in a similar vein to how the first had ended, neither side able to punch holes in their opponents’ defence and both kicking for territory. With Halfpenny and Christian Leali’ifano both on fine form with the boot penalty goals seemed most likely to decide the outcome, and the defensive strength and greater discipline of the Lions looked to be taking them to victory.

 

The turning-point, even though it did not result in a score, came with ten minutes to go. Wallabies skipper James Horwill eschewed an easy three points when the Wallabies were awarded a penalty in front of the Lions’ goalposts, opting for a scrum. On this occasion the attempted inside ball from James O’Connor bounced off Folau’s chest, but the intent shown lifted the Wallabies fans and set up a thrilling finale. Five minutes later Australia managed to put together a sequence of phases and advanced to within a few metres of the line. O’Connor had attacked from too deep throughout the game, allowing the Lions defenders to line him up and take him down behind the gain line. Now he took the ball at the defenders at speed, jinking left to attract the attention of both his opposite number and the Lions’ inside centre. Adam Ashley Cooper ran onto O’Connor’s pass through the gap created and crossed the chalk untouched. Leali’ifano coolly added the conversion, marking a fantastic performance in what was to all intents and purposes his international debut – he had lasted less than a minute on his first appearance last weekend before being knocked out cold.

 

Halfpenny’s last gasp miss means we move on to a winner-takes-all decider in front of another full house in Sydney on Saturday night. The Wallabies showed this weekend that they will not be bowed when the pressure is on, and will continue to attack. It remains to be seen whether the Lions can break the shackles in a pressure-cooker atmosphere that will be ratcheted up even higher with the outcome of the series on the line. If not they are likely to return home with their tails between their legs and another twelve years to wait for a chance at redemption.

 

As a brief postscript, please take note Etihad Stadium. Do not print “access any gate” on tickets for sold out events. Over 90% of your patrons approach from the raised walkway in front of Southern Cross station, and Gates 1,2 and 3 are the obvious point of entry. Having arrived in what should have been plenty of time to take in the atmosphere and the anthems before the game, I only just made my seat for kick-off. You have seven gates – get patrons to enter by the gate nearest their allotted seat.  You will then avoid the ugly scenes on Saturday night with tens of thousands of valid ticket holders being held up outside the stadium as the start approaches, and which felt like it would turn into a stampede at any moment.

Comments

  1. Luke Reynolds says:

    Another great game, what a great series. Bring on Saturday night in Sydney. Enjoying your reports Tim.

  2. Tim Ladhams says:

    Thanks Luke, greatly appreciated – what a humdinger of a series it is! Saturday will be bigger again, I think the Wallabies will take a lot of confidence into the game but I fear they may be without Horwill. My initial thought was he would get rubbed out, as they wouldn’t appeal if they were comfortable with the original outcome, but I’ve heard a conflicting report this evening that it might just be a matter of process to validate that first hearing. Either way we’ll know by the morning, and the Lions will definitely be without their skipper.

  3. Tom Clarke says:

    Whilst giving advice to stadiums/aru management… The use of music through the stadium PA system during march time drives me bonkers!
    Listening to 30,000 odd Lions supporters singing in unison was amazing. I simply cannot understand why management would deny the audience of opportunities to fill a vacuum with vocal support of their teams.
    PA music doesn’t help create atmosphere – it robbs it.

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