- Ashley-Cooper's late try hands Wallabies narrow victory
- Halfpenny left late series-winning penalty attempt short
Australia 16 Lions 15
The British and Irish Lions’ search for a first series win in 16 years is extended for another week at least after Australia edged an enthralling encounter 16-15 in Melbourne.
In an echo of the end of the first Test – when Kurtley Beale left a match-winning penalty short – Leigh Halfpenny had the opportunity to win the series after the hooter had sounded but his long-range attempt never had the distance and Will Genia gleefully pumped the ball into touch.
Instead it was Christian Leali'ifano – cruelly denied the chance to demonstrate his kicking talent after a head injury less than a minute into the first Test – who was the hero, improving Adam Ashley-Cooper’s late try with a gutsy wide conversion to put the Wallabies into the lead with five minutes to play.
The scrum and resulting penalties had been the game’s dominant factor up to that point – referee Craig Joubert penalising and rewarding Mako Vunipola on series of occasions – allowing Leali'ifano, who kicked four from four, and Halfpenny to keep the scoreboard moving with pinpoint accuracy.
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Robbie Deans’ side eventually wrestled hold of the possession and territory in the final quarter and with the Lions forced deeper and deeper, there was a sense of inevitability about Ashley-Cooper’s smart try after long spells of defending in their 22.
The Lions started with the ferocity of a side with the record books beckoning, Tom Youngs leading a rapid kick-chase on the game’s first play to trap the Wallabies well behind the gain line.
The visitors were in the ascendency – epitomised by Brian O’Driscoll’s thundering hit on Ashley-Cooper – with Joubert pinging Australia four times in the opening seven minutes. When the Wallabies pack hauled down a line out catch-and drive in the 10th minute, Halfpenny was presented with the chance to send a penalty through the uprights and reward the Lions’ dominant start.
But Australia surged back into the game, building on a facet of the game that has been rare for them in recent years – penalties gleaned from the scrum. After Israel Folau, back on the ground where he started his professional career as a 17 year old, signalled his intentions by leaping high above George North to claim a highball, a series of captivating scrums ensued.
Leali'ifano, making only his second Test start, took over the kicking duties from James O’Connor and slotted Australia into a 6-3 lead at the end of the first quarter after Ben Alexander won successive penalties from Vunipola.
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The Saracens man, who had snaffled a stunning turnover earlier to halt a Wallabies attack, appeared to be having a torrid time but bounced back soon after as the Lions eight eked out successive penalties, with Halfpenny again making no mistake.
Dan Lydiate was brought into the side to shut down Australia’s world-leading scrum half Genia with his work rate in defence but, too keen to make an impression, the Wales flanker was miles offside charging out of the defensive line and Leali'ifano – not looking like missing a kick – tied the scores on 36 minutes.
Halfpenny slotted the final penalty of the half to give the Lions a slender 12-9 half-time lead, with Lions fans in the crowd knowing that their hosts overturned a 11-6 deficit at the break in 2001 to romp to a 35-14 victory.
Folau looks proficient in all parts of the game, not least when the ball in the air, and the former NRL and ARL star had to use every inch of his 6’ 4” frame to clasp the ball from a Jonathan Davies kick at the start of the second half.
And while the exchange of seemingly crucial penalties continued at the scrum and breakdown, they were not in kickable range and there was greater ambition from both sides. Jonny Sexton hoisted a testing kick down the throat of Beale, who could only cough it up, before Australia got their offloading game going. Searching for width and sparked by a lightening Folau break, the Wallabies surged unerringly forward only for lock Kane Douglas to knock-on in the 22.
Unsurprisingly given the power at scrum time, a raft of changes ensued, with Dan Cole and Richard Hibbard adding their weight to proceedings. James Slipper and Sekope Kepu were on in the front row for the Wallabies too but it was Cole emerged with the pats on the head after a scrum on the hour mark, Halfpenny squeezing the kick over to make the lead six.
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The physicality from both sides did not abate, with North, while in possession of the ball, picking up Folau and carrying him backwards on his shoulder in one incredble moment among a series of shuddering hits.
With only a converted try needed, Australia surged forward with real intensity and buoyed by a series of strong carries and quick ball, produced the only try of the game. O’Connor, who had already shovelled a poor pass to Folau with the line gaping, collected Genia’s pass and moved the ball on to Ashley-Cooper, who slid between the outnumbered defenders to score.
Leali'ifano's superb conversion was far from the end of the drama though, with late action in Australia's half. First Richard Hibbard could not hit his jumper from a line out as Liam Gill pounced, and then, after Joubert ruled that Ben Mowen had not rolled away on the deck, Halfpenny was just too far out to write his name into rugby folklore.
This wonderfully tight series, poised at 1-1, could conceivably be 2-0 to either side and the show moves onto Sydney for a winner-takes-all finale this time week.
Australia vs Lions teams
Australia: Kurtley Beale (Melbourne Rebels); Israel Folau (NSW), Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW), Christian Leali'ifano (ACT Brumbies), Joe Tomane (Brumbies); James O'Connor (Melbourne Rebels), Will Genia (Reds); Benn Robinson (NSW), Stephen Moore (ACT), Ben Alexander (ACT), James Horwill (Reds - capt), Kane Douglas (NSW), Ben Mowen (ACT), Michael Hooper (NSW), Wycliff Palu (NSW).
Replacements: Saia Fainga'a (Reds), James Slipper (Reds), Sekope Kepu (NSW), Rob Simmons (Reds), Liam Gill (Reds) Nick Phipps (Rebels), Rob Horne (NSW), Jesse Mogg (Brumbies).
Lions: Leigh Halfpenny, Tommy Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll, Jonathan Davies, George North, Jonathan Sexton, Ben Youngs; Mako Vunipola, Tom Youngs, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Geoff Parling, Dan Lydiate, Sam Warburton (c), Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Richard Hibbard, Ryan Grant, Dan Cole, Tom Croft, Sean O'Brien, Conor Murray, Owen Farrell, Alex Cuthbert.