Saturday 22nd June 2013. I arrived at The Faltering Fullback, Finsbury Park, at 10am on the dot. The place was already packed as white, green, navy blue and (predominantly) red shirted rugby folk scrummed-down for the last of the remaining chairs, tables, benches or lintels that would act as their seat for the next three hours. My girlfriend often informs me that only rugby or the start of a holiday will wake me on a Saturday morning. As I surveyed the dark, dank back-room of the pub with its congregation of blurry-eyed Lions supporters, I wondered how many of these sleepy wanderers had felt the same shock of being ‘up and about’ at that time of day. Breakfast was called for, namely a bacon and egg sarnie delivered (that’s right, delivered!) from the greasy spoon over the road, accompanied with a pint of the black stuff. In fact, some hardened campaigners of the early-morning Test variety plumped for a breakfast consisting solely of Guinness. Whatever the method, the result was much the same as the scales of the previous night’s excursions were washed from the eyes of the gathered and the excitement/tension built towards kick-off. 10:50am: a chorus of “Lions, Lions” filled the air. English, Welsh, Scots and Irish had come together in anticipation of an event twelve years in the making and a match that the combined forces of Britain and Ireland had been predicted to win. Little did we know that just two hours later, with the game entering its final minute, the entire room would be hushed, still and silent, bracing itself for an agonising last-kick defeat. Step forward another Faltering Fullback – the desperately unlucky Kurtley Beale. Here was a man who, having battled with his personal demons in the last few months, had now been presented with a swift route to redemption. As he slipped on the Brisbane turf, and the ball fatefully dipped under the tourists’ posts, the bar erupted in scenes of jubilation. A first Test series victory in sixteen years looked a real possibility once again whereas, seconds earlier, the dream had seemed improbable. But among the roars, the applause and the pints spilling in the air, there were some of us who felt incredibly sorry for Beale. Welsh supporters have been on the other end of that heartbreaking scoreline all too often in the last eighteen months and, having known how it feels to come so close and then lose a match, will have given a thought to the Australian substitute kicker. After eighty pulsating minutes, which contained four top-class tries, the overriding emotion was relief. A win’s a win though and the Lions now move onto Melbourne where they’ll have to improve in several areas if they are to get that all important second win.
The first Test was never likely to be the walkover that some Lions supporters had predicted. Yes the Wallabies had their injury worries and, yes, they were undercooked having not played a match since December, but the same can be said of the tourists whose warm-up opponents Down Under have been anything but red hot. You can also never write off a team that contains players like Will Genia and, as we discovered on Saturday, Israel Folau. The game had all the hallmarks of two well-matched sides feeling their way into Test rugby. As Head Coach Gatland put it, the match was, “[a] bit like a sparring match, both teams finding out about each other”. That said, on fifty minutes the Lions were eight points ahead and had the opportunity to put the squeeze on the Wallabies. But poor game management (and three incidents in particular) put pay to that. The first came directly after Alex Cuthbert’s try: having opened up the lead, the tourists gave away a kickable penalty straight from the restart which James O’Connor duly converted. The gap closed from two scores to one and it brought the Wallabies straight back into the fight. The second incident came around the seventy minute mark when the Lions conspired to lose their own scrum on the opposition’s five-metre line. With the Lions (supposedly) having dominance in that area of the game, an attacking scrum-five had ‘golden opportunity’ written all over it. The chance to seal victory was, alas, wasted. Finally, the scrum on the half-way line that led to Beale’s (ultimately unsuccessful) kick at goal was a textbook example in what not to do in the last minute of an international match. The scrum is a lottery at the best of times, and it was plainly the wrong decision to keep the ball within the forwards when there was always a chance of conceding a penalty within a kickable distance. The Lions would have also been aware of referee Chris Pollock’s unusual interpretation of the laws. As such, the ball should have exited the scrum cleanly and quickly and been kicked deep into Australian territory. The decision not to do this almost cost the Lions the match.
The coaching staff must come in for some flak here as well. Of the incidents mentioned above, two refer to problems at the scrum. Both occurred after the entire Lions front row had been replaced. The dominance that had been asserted in the first half (when the Aussie scrum was absolutely destroyed) suddenly disappeared. I don’t know whether the coaches felt it was time for fresh legs. If so, they made the move too early. Both the props and hooker should remain on the field for longer, if possible.
And what about selection issues? As one friend put it to me after the weekend’s narrow victory, “A lot of those shirts are still up for grabs”, and following some strong performances against Melbourne Rebels in midweek this is still very much the case. From the side that started in Brisbane only Halfpenny, North, Sexton, Adam Jones, Tom Youngs, Alun-Wyn Jones and Warburton can be assured a starting place for match two. Elsewhere on the field, Gatland and his team have some important calls to make. Phillips or Youngs? Bowe or Cuthbert? Croft or Lydiate? Heaslip or Faletau? And what centre combination does he field? Having seen how the Wallabies play, I would bring ‘chopper’ Lydiate into the team with Croft coming off the bench. That’s where I’d place Tuilagi also – an impact player to break up the O’Driscoll/Davies partnership later in the game. I would start with Bowe and drop Cuthbert who I still worry about defensively. At scrum half, I wouldn’t be surprised if Phillips again starts (having had a week to digest the videos of the successful Australian attempts to nullify him) but Youngs deserves the call given his form.
The Lions were lucky in Brisbane and won’t be allowed the same kind of fortune in Melbourne. Yet they lead the series 1-0 and now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seal a series victory Down Under. They will be aiming to wrap things up on Saturday and, in doing so, avoid a final Test decider. If they are to win, then game management and use of the bench has to be much better. Thursday’s team announcement will also go a long way to decide the result. But having been given such a lifeline last weekend, I can’t see the Lions being complacent in the second Test. Now if only I can find a bar called ‘The Away Win’.
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Two other (short) points this week: firstly, the fact that Aussie Captain James Horwill hasn’t been banned for his blatant stamp on Alun-Wyn Jones’ head in the first Test is a disgrace. He claimed he was ‘off-balance’ but, having seen the video, he was making a deliberate effort to injure the player below. He may not have been able to see which body part he was stamping on but his actions were, in my view, deliberate and he shouldn’t be playing again in this series. The decision smacks of the home bias shown in the two recent tours to South Africa and New Zealand (incidents involving Tana Umaga and Schalk Burger). Secondly, and following on from last week’s blog, what are your views on Tom Court’s late selection as injury cover for Alex Corbisiero. It again seems that geography was the main factor in the decision to call him up (Court was in Brisbane visiting family). With the Irishman warming the bench against the Rebels, was this pragmatic decision a correct one or, given Court’s standing in British and Irish rugby, does it devalue the shirt? Should those looking to be called up as injury replacements book holidays to coincide with the tour destination? Now there’s a thought.