Friday, 7 July 2017

A Tale of Two Tests - Lions 2013

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Two tests, two last minutes kicks at two different venues is the summary of the Lions Tour Downunder thus far, leaving the two teams heading to Sydney for the winner takes all decider next Saturday, July 6th. A marketing dream no doubt for all the Lions commercial interests. And if the Lions support at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne is any indication, the final game in the series will no doubt see more pilgrims arrive in Australia from the Northern Hemisphere. A trip that will prove memorable if Lions captain Sam Warburton and Head Coach Warren Gatland can secure the Holy Grail in the final showdown in just under seven days. 

Ironically the fate of the two captains could prove pivotal, as Warburton is nursing a hamstring injury incurred in the second half, which in his own words, leaves him in uncharted territory given it is an injury he has never suffered before. His opposite number, James Horwill, faces the IRB appeal process on Monday, which may dictate his availability for the vital 3rd test. An issue he was reluctant to address in the post-match euphoria at the Etihad, given it would be unthinkable that he would not lead his beloved Wallabies. 

However, both those outcomes for the moment are floating in the ether.

As for the match, well, it ended as the first did on the Gold Coast, with a kicker facing a chance to win the game outright as Lions Leigh Halfpenny was unable to close out the series when he had a 55 metre opportunity in the 82nd minute of play. Even for a kicker of his calibre it was always going to be tough, as it rested just outside his comfort range. And having hit the crossbar early in the first half from inside the half way line, the Wales fullback was in the lap of the Gods. yet for different reasons than those suffered by Kurtley Beale in Brisbane, the Lions kicker also missed, and as a result set the Wallabies into fits of joy and the series to another round.

In a match that was from a flowing spectacle the sight of the Australian backs running into space in the dying quarter showed once again that Wallabies coach Robbie Deans maybe reaping the reward of his two years developing this squad. The movement of these athletic set of runners is a joy to watch when on form, albeit on this Melbourne night a high level of handling and passing errors restricted their opportunities to capitalise on their possession. Given they had four clean breaks that went aground.

But fortune favours the brave and the home side never gave up, reaping the win as their reward.

Perhaps aided by a number of substitutions made by Gatland's that included Ben Youngs, Jamie Heaslip, and Adam Jones within minutes of each other midway through the second half. Enough variation in the structure perhaps to lose some of the Lions momentum and allow the hosts score the games only try. In sport the margins for the victors are more often than not, based on that kind of momentum.

The loss of Warburton may too have been crucial. 

Although the arrival of the Tullow Tank would have been more than adequate replacement, as Sean O’Beirne has been close to earning a test spot in his own right all week. Although it has to be noted on Saturday night the Wales captain had an outstanding game at the breakdown and was more than a handful even for referee Craig Joubert, who spent most of the night reminding "number seven red" on the laws of the game. Where at the breakdown where the visitors racked up 21 turnovers – as against conceding 15.

All a welcome change for the Lions captain who has been fighting the backchat in the early weeks of this tour as to the merits of being guaranteed a test place - given the form of so many of the players in the squad. But should Warburton fail in his recovery then other options will no doubt be more easily found given the current strength in depth in the back row. Where the Lions may need to have a more profound look is in the back line where beyond scrumhalf Youngs the movement seemed restricted on the night, lacking creativity and always second best in the onslaught from the Wallabies. 

Albeit in defence the work rate was intense and heroic, even if Brian O'Driscoll became over enthusiastic and conceded a number of needless penalties.

It will be in that area that the selectors may show their ruthlessness as the case for the iconic Irish centre automatic test selection may now be under review. The lack of penetration through the Australian back line becoming more notable as the game progressed. Although Johnny Sexton completed the task at hand his influence seemed stifled, even if the failure to get Tommie Bowe running was more down to Dean’s homework it has to be said. Whereas George North once again showed how difficult he is to stop once he gathers a high ball on the counter. 

In the end though the Wallabies broke more tackles, handled 150 passes versus 70 and flashed three times more offloads than the rampaging Lions. All of which supports the final result for the Wallabies, who were worth their win on the night. A point that both coaches were very in tune with post match as the third game gives Deans the revival he has been desperately seeking for a while. Offering the Lions coach Gatland a glorious finale as heads to Sydney with an all to play for in game 3. 

In the words of Warburton nothings has changed though, he woke on Saturday morning with one test left to settle the series, and leaves Melbourne with that unchanged after the 82 Etihad minutes.

However those euphemisms mean little to the players, who for the most part were deflated having been so close to winning test two, and yet so far. As Sexton said when speaking pitch side after the match.

"Leigh had a long-range attempt, but it was always going to be a tough ask for him to hit that," Sexton added. "It was from all of 50 metres or so. It was an extremely difficult kick for him. It didn't come down to one kick - we need to examine how we played.

"We probably felt he could get the kick, and Leigh felt he could too. We've seen him knock them over from that kind of distance before, but it's right on his range.

"It was a very tough kick, and you have to also remember how tired he must have been right at the death. It's small margins, but like I say, you can't look at one man. There was plenty wrong with our performance as a team.

"We were 1-0 up and we should have gone 2-0 up, and we didn't. At times it felt we were wishing the game to finish, rather than going out and going after it. That's how I felt, anyway."
“But talking about making history is not going to win you the game. It's about executing the moves, the game plan, being good in defence and stopping their moves."

On the night though there was one record shattered at the Etihad Stadium as the attendance surpassed the venue’s previous record – funnily enough set 12 years ago when the Qantas Wallabies last played the Lions in Melbourne. 

A total of 56,771 supporters came through the gates with the previous record being 56,605, set on Saturday 7 July 2001. 

The first Test of the DHL Australia 2013 Lions Tour also produced a ground record crowd for Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, with 52,499 attending the series opener.

Now we just need to see what records are broken in the final Test of the Tour at ANZ Stadium in Sydney next Saturday night.

A Lions win maybe?

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