Injuries finally take toll on Lions

Australia 29 Lions 23
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The Independent Online

When the definitive study of the 2001 Lions comes to be written, it will be best for everyone concerned if Austin Healey is kept well away from the pen and paper. The Leicester Lip has written quite enough for one tour, thank you very much. For the second time in a fortnight, the Lions found themselves compromised from within as one of their number unleashed an ill-tempered, ill-timed and mind-bogglingly inappropriate torrent of invective in a newspaper column published on the other side of the world, and, on this occasion, they were unable to rise above it. Worse, they were forced to stand and stare as the intended fall-guy did all the rising that mattered.

Justin Harrison, a late developer of a lock forward famously described by the departing Wallaby coach, Rod Macqueen, as a "long streak of misery", was the reluctant recipient of one or two alternative labels as he prepared to make his Test debut in the biggest game played on Australian soil in a dozen years. According to Healey, with whom he had jousted both verbally and pugilistically in Gosford and Canberra, he was a "plank", a "plod" and an "ape". An unfortunate choice of words, in light of the manner in which Harrison dismantled the Lions' line-out fore and aft and contributed handsomely towards the tourists' ultimate demise.

Given the scale of the challenge confronting the red-shirted brethren, it was an act of purest sporting masochism to play the smart-arse as Healey did. Faced with a do-or-die match against the world champions in their most forbidding stronghold, the Lions were forced to field walking wounded in almost every department. Keith Wood was far from 100 per cent fit, Scott Quinnell rather less than 50 per cent. Matt Dawson, Healey's nearest challenger in the race for the Pulitzer Prize, was struggling with hamstring trouble; the Irish centres, Rob Henderson and Brian O'Driscoll, were in pieces; Jonny Wilkinson's recovery from a serious leg injury had been too rapid to be considered complete. When Healey broke down with back spasms on Friday, the size of the mountain to be climbed should have been obvious, even to him.

It was certainly obvious to Graham Henry, and the head coach reacted with Vesuvian anger when informed of this latest journalistic aberration – indeed, he would have considered withdrawing Healey from the starting line-up had the medical staff not saved him the trouble by declaring the player unfit on Saturday morning. Henry was still in a mighty fume yesterday as he picked over the remains of a knife-edge series. "I am amazed that a player in the Lions group should have given the opposition the ammunition they needed," he said, before indicating that Healey would be fined. "Effectively, it was a free team talk for the Wallabies. I'm not sure what Austin thought he was trying to achieve, but, knowing the Australian animal as I do, it was perfect motivational material for them."

Harrison hurt the Lions from the start. He stole clean possession from Danny Grewcock at the first throw, and burgled his opponents a second time in the seventh minute. He then dropped from middle to back, where he remained a pain in the nether regions, before moving to the front of the line at a pivotal moment deep in second-half injury time. Six points adrift and in dire need of a try, the tourists had won themselves an attacking line-out no more than seven or eight metres from the Wallaby line. Convinced that Martin Johnson, the Lions captain, would call the throw to himself – "No leader of his stature would shirk the responsibility," Harrison explained – the pumped-up Canberran ignored instructions to concentrate on blocking the inevitable driving maul, leapt across his opponent and pinched a priceless ball from under the great man's right nostril. Game, set, match and series.

"No one else wanted to contest the throw, but I figured it was worth the gamble," said Harrison. "Mind you, I'd have been in no position to stop the drive had I not won the ball, so I needed things to go right." And a message for Austin, by way of a fond farewell? "I'm happy with the game I played; Healey has a long flight home, during which he can think about the game he didn't play. I wouldn't say he has too great a command of the English language – there aren't many syllables in 'plank', are there? I found his comments disappointing, to be honest with you. What entitles him to come up with that kind of stuff?"

To their eternal credit, the Wallabies came up with the right answers when the difficult questions were asked at the moments of maximum pressure. John Eales and his confrères are acknowledged masters of the art of doing just enough to win a game, but there was no holding back in this one. As Eales agreed after taking possession of the Tom Richards Trophy – a prize that will remain draped in Wallaby gold until 2013 – the Australian tank was very nearly as dry as the Lions'. "They took us absolutely to the limit," said the great Queensland lock. "There was no confirmed winner until Andrew Walker carried the ball into touch on the final whistle, so whatever delight I feel is matched by sheer relief."

Embarrassed by their scrummaging misfire in Melbourne the previous week, the Lions rediscovered their close-quarters prowess and made the Wallabies sweat at set-piece and maul, where Phil Vickery performed magnificently for an hour. If they looked less than dangerous out wide – O'Driscoll, the attacking genius of the party, could not summon the spirit of Brisbane, although he tried his damnedest – they still managed to create a run-in for Jason Robinson at the end of the first quarter and a fine multi-phased try for Wilkinson at the beginning of the third.

But the Australians grew more competitive and accomplished as the contest wore on and, in Harrison, Eales, Matthew Burke, George Smith and the astonishing George Gregan, they had the personnel best equipped to seize the day. Gregan's pass was quicker and more potent than anything Dawson was able to deliver and, along with Eales, the Zambian-born scrum-half tackled like a man possessed. Between them, the captain and vice-captain brought composure, discipline and unshakeable concentration to a situation as stressful as any to be found in contemporary sport.

Much the same could be said for Burke, a full-back of the highest quality whose form prior to Saturday had been of serious concern to the Wallaby hierarchy. If Daniel Herbert's beautifully executed tries either side of half-time cancelled out the best the Lions could offer, Burke's peerless goal-kicking gave Australia the edge. He banged over two absolute heartbreakers early on, one from either touchline, and when Eales and his pack turned the screw in the final 12 minutes, the 50-cap maestro extracted full value with two perfectly struck penalties from right field.

As 20,000 Lions supporters continued to drown out 60,000 locals with their full-throated singing from the precipitous banks of seating at either end of Stadium Australia, there remained the faint possibility of a grand finale from the tourists. Indeed, the quicksilver Iain Balshaw might well have set sail for the right corner in the dying seconds of the game had the passing inside him been more precise. But the real opportunity had been spurned in Melbourne seven days previously. As Henry revealed yesterday: "We talked ourselves up for this last Test, but the reality was that we didn't train as a side all week. We didn't have a dog's chance, frankly, so I'm proud we went as close as we did."

Australia 29

Tries: Herbert 2

Conversions: Burke 2

Penalties: Burke 5

Lions 23

Tries: Robinson, Wilkinson

Conversions: Wilkinson 2

Penalties: Wilkinson 3

Half-time: 16-13, Attendance: 84,188

AUSTRALIA: M Burke (New South Wales); A Walker (ACT), D Herbert (Queensland), N Grey (New South Wales), J Roff (ACT); E Flatley (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT); N Stiles (Queensland), M Foley (Queensland), R Moore (New South Wales), J Harrison (ACT), J Eales (Queensland, capt), O Finegan (ACT), G Smith (ACT), T Kefu (Queensland). Replacements: M Cockbain (Queensland) for Finegan, 74; J Holbeck (ACT) for Grey, 79.

LIONS: M Perry (Bath and England); D James (Bridgend and Wales), B O'Driscoll (Leinster and Ireland), R Henderson (Munster and Ireland), J Robinson (Sale and England); J Wilkinson (Newcastle and England), M Dawson (Northampton and England); T Smith (Northampton and Scotland), K Wood (Harlequins and Ireland), P Vickery (Gloucester and England), M Johnson (Leicester and England, capt), D Grewcock (Bath and England), M Corry (Leicester and England), N Back (Leicester and England), S Quinnell (Llanelli and Wales). Replacements: C Charvis (Swansea and Wales) for Quinnell, h-t; I Balshaw (Bath and England) for James, 74; D Morris (Swansea and Wales) for Smith, 74.

Referee: P O'Brien (New Zealand).

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