Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 13 July 2014

Lions have thrown down gauntlet to the Australians in Test series

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 22: Kurtley Beale of the Wallabies kicks for a penatly goal to win during the First Test match between the Australian Wallabies and the British & Irish Lions at Suncorp Stadium on June 22, 2013 in Brisbane, Australia.  (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 22: Kurtley Beale of the Wallabies kicks for a penatly goal to win during the First Test match between the Australian Wallabies and the British & Irish Lions at Suncorp Stadium on June 22, 2013 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Won one, one more required. That is the mood in the wake of the success chalked up by the Lions on Saturday at Suncorps Stadium.

By emerging victorious from the first Test, they have thrown down a weighty northern hemisphere gauntlet to the Australians who must now win each of the remaining two showdowns if they are to take the series.

In sharp contrast, one more victory will see the tourists become the first Lions since 1997 to emerge triumphant. Warren Gatland's men are agonisingly close to completion of the task; by lunch-time on Saturday they may have accomplished it.

But let's not rush ahead. The history of Lions tours confirms that winning a first Test does not necessarily translate as series success.

And any sense of well-being at this stage must be counter-balanced by the realisation that the Lions were a tad lucky to shade Saturday's Brisbane Test against opponents who had the misfortune to lose a trio of injured backs, with debutant centre Christian Lealiifano – their first-choice goal-kicker – stretchered off after less than a minute.

Full-back Berrick Barnes exited in similar circumstances before the interval and midfielder Pat McCabe was carried off seven minutes after it, with his departure forcing the hosts to switch open-side Michael Hooper to the centre, a totally alien role for the Waratahs flanker.

At that point the Lions might reasonably have been expected to exploit those deficiencies and almost at once they gave credence to that belief when right wing Alex Cuthbert slalomed through the gold/green defensive door in response to the excellence of Jonny Sexton, Jonathan Davies and Brian O'Driscoll's combined efforts in opening it.

Leigh Halfpenny's conversion made it 20-12 and with an eight-point cushion and half-an-hour remaining against decimated opponents, the Lions were in a very good place to ram home their advantage and superiority.

But the bottom line is that from then until the final whistle they were outscored 9-3. And had unfortunate replacement Kurtley Beale been able to land either of two late penalties, Australia, not the Lions, would be heading to Melbourne with a one-nil lead.

So let's not kid ourselves. The situation might well have been very different, with the talk being of failure, Gatland's neck on the block and the epitaphs for the 2013 Lions already written but put on hold.

The Lions were within a slip of Beale's standing foot to that being the case.

In total the Wallabies left 14 kickable points on the pitch, for prior to the introduction of Beale – who has been engaged in a very well-documented battle with alcohol problems – fly-half James O'Connor squandered three of his first four attempts off the tee.

And while Beale is fated to go down as the man whose last-gasp miss cost Australia victory, in the interests of fair play, and a fuller picture, it must also be remembered that it was as a result of the pair he got on target that the hosts clawed their way back to within two points of parity.

Remember, too, Beale had played little more than 30 minutes of senior rugby in the previous four months. In addition, this was Australia's first outing of 2013. Together he and they will be in better shape for the two Tests yet to come.

Gatland has to be concerned about what happened to his side's scrum once he replaced Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs and Adam Jones en masse with Mako Vunipola, Richard Hibbard and Dan Cole deputising.

In a blink a previously impressive – at moments, awesome – set-piece began to unravel, giving rise to fears that the strength in depth on which the tourists had prided themselves was perhaps overstated.

Youngs has played his way to the fore for the two shirt. His line-out throwing on Saturday was a flawless 10 out of 10, with the Lions finally coming good out of touch. By using back row pair Jamie Heaslip and Tom Croft as well as locks Alun-Wyn Jones and Paul O'Connell, the tourists always had the hosts guessing as to the target.

The eight forwards will be retained as a pack, though I remain convinced that Sam Warburton's inclusion ahead of Justin Tipuric is down to the former having been awarded the captaincy rather than current form.

The availability of Tommy Bowe and Manu Tuilagi will require big decisions with regard to the back line in which Sexton and O'Driscoll excelled, albeit that the latter struggled with New Zealand referee Chris Pollock's interpretation of legality at the breakdown.

George North has been the Lions' stand-out back thus far, with Saturday's wondrous try the brightest gem to date in his heavily bejeweled crown.

Mike Phillips is due a big match – Will Genia totally eclipsed him – though his fellow-countryman Halfpenny has had no such problems.

Like five of the Welsh full-back's six kicks on Saturday, the Lions are bang on target. But on the initial evidence, this series is far from won.

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