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Lions hold on for victory in series-opening thriller

22 June 2013

  • Last-gasp misses by Kurtley Beale gives Lions 23-21 win
  • Tries from George North and Alex Cuthbert enough to hand Lions 1-0 lead
Tom Croft

Photo: Getty Images

Australia 21 Lions 23

The British and Irish Lions survived a ferocious Australia fight-back to secure an absorbing 23-21 win in the first Test at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.

Kurtley Beale – who injected genuine spark for the Wallabies after replacing the injured Berrick Barnes – had a chance to win the series-opener for his side from the tee in the very last play, but slipped on strike to send the traveling fans into raptures.

In truth, the final stages had descended into chaos with the play fractured and frenetic, but a second-half try from Wales wing Alex Cuthbert was eventually enough for Warren Gatland’s men to squeeze home.

The game had earlier exploded into life – Jonathan Davies careering into contact from the Lions’ first lineout, ending Christian Leali’ifano’s Test debut 40 seconds after it had began as the Brumbies centre was brought from the field on a stretcher. Pat McCabe took his place.

Despite that set-back the Wallabies had the first chance to open the scoring after Kiwi Chris Pollock penalised Brian O’Driscoll for failing to support his bodyweight at a ruck on his own ten-metre line.

James O’Connor faded his attempt at the posts to the left, but was gifted another opportunity on seven minutes when the experienced Irish centre again infringed on the deck.

O’Connor could only produce an action-replay of his earlier effort, and would have been worried when a dominant Lions scrum earned a penalty and excellent field position.

Israel Folau

Photo: Getty Images

But the Wallabies were then brought to life by their pocket talisman Will Genia, as another ruck offence gave them a penalty on their own 22.

Rather than calm the pace and kick for touch, Genia took a quick tap and scorched into a 60-metre break before sliding a grubber through for debutant Israel Folau to canter over unopposed. O’Connor did not a miss a third time.

At 7-0 down, it seemed as though some nerves were creeping into the Lions psyche – Cuthbert spilled a simple punt and Jonny Sexton struggled to get a foothold on proceedings.

With Genia bringing his forwards into play delightfully around the fringes, it took a mighty effort – led by Tom Youngs’ immense industry – to weather the Wallaby storm.

Gatland’s men were rewarded and got on the board with a Leigh Halpenny penalty following some over-zealousness at a lineout from Australia skipper James Horwill.

The game then entered an spectacular second quarter, George North returning an aimless Wallaby punt in phenomenal fashion for an all-time great Lions try, cruising past three defenders to cross in the left-hand corner.

Halfpenny was on hand for an excellent conversion, and added three more points just before the half-hour mark – but only after North had been denied a brace by the television match official.

At 13-7 down, it was Australia who needed inspiration, and Folau provided it when fellow first-capper Ben Mowen freed him on the right flank.

From 40 metres out, a mazy run rendered Sexton a hapless bystander and the incredibly talented code-crosser had a double. Again, though, O’Connor failed to improve the return.

On the stroke of half-time, loose head Alex Corbisiero burst through Australia’s fringe defence and linked with Tom Croft to get the Lions into the opposition 22. Davies, who was impressive in attack throughout, barrelled close and the Wallabies went off their feet.

George North

Photo: Getty Images

Pollock declined to send anyone to the sin bin and Halfpenny uncharacteristically failed to add another three points, so the teams went in with the Lions 13-12 ahead.

The intensity did not let up after the break, and McCabe became another casualty of an eye-wateringly physical contest, Robbie Deans forced to deploy openside Michael Hooper in midfield with Liam Gill taking his place in the pack.

Sexton expertly scented the weakness and directed a cute midfield move to send Cuthbert sprinting through the heart of the Wallabies and over close to the posts. Halfpenny’s conversion made it 20-12. From there, though, Australia began to claw their way back.

An elementary lapse of concentration from the ensuing re-start presented O’Connor with an immediate chance to dent the deficit, and Beale brought his country even closer with 61 minutes on the clock when Jamie Heaslip came in at the side.

Sexton stepped up again with a neat chip-and-chase to get the Lions on the back foot and after Mowen entered the ruck illegally, Halfpenny nailed a tough penalty for 23-18.

Despite mounting injuries – Adam Ashley-Cooper suffered a suspected dislocated shoulder too – Australia would just not lie down. Beale made an electric break and kicked a penalty when Paul O’Connell ended the same attack in a manner that Pollock did not agree with.

Kurtley Beale

Photo: Getty Images

The Melbourne Rebel – whose involvement in this series had been far from certain due to off-field problems – then had two chances to break Lions hearts. The first came on 74 minutes when Mako Vunipola infringed at a ruck, the shot sliding to the right.

A second arrived following a very messy scrum that completely disintegrated. But Beale’s studs did not grip on the slippery Suncorp turf, and a stumble meant the required elevation was not there.

It was far from perfect, as a hugely relieved Gatland acknowledged afterwards, but the Lions now head to Melbourne one win away from a first series victory in 16 years.

Australia: Berrick Barnes; Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali'ifano, Digby Ioane; James O'Connor, Will Genia; Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore, Ben Alexander, James Horwill (capt), Kane Douglas, Ben Mowen, Michael Hooper, Wycliff Palu.

Replacements: Saia Fainga'a, James Slipper (for Robinson, 68), Sekope Kepu (for Alexander, 58), Rob Simmons (for Douglas, 68), Liam Gill (for McCabe, 47), Nick Phipps (for Ashley-Cooper, 77), Pat McCabe (for Leali'ifano, 2) Kurtley Beale (for Barnes, 38).

Lions: Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Brian O'Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, George North, Jonathan Sexton, Mike Phillips; Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul O'Connell, Tom Croft, Sam Warburton (capt), Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: Richard Hibbard (for T Youngs, 65), Mako Vunipola (for Corbisiero, 52), Dan Cole (for A Jones, 52), Geoff Parling (for AW Jones, 70), Dan Lydiate (for Croft, 73), Ben Youngs (for Phillips, 62), Owen Farrell, Sean Maitland.

Referee: Chris Pollock (NZ)

Attendance: 52,499