It scarcely seems worth the effort for a representative team to fly halfway round the world for a rugby match and then fail to show up on the night, so Rory Best’s confession along those lines after this bitterly disappointing defeat – the first Lions failure against provincial opponents in 16 years – was sorrowful in the extreme. Precisely how deeply events have pierced the soul of the touring party is not yet known, but we will find out for sure this weekend when the Test series with the Wallabies gets underway in Brisbane.
The Brumbies may be the best team in Australia, with the obvious exception of the Wallabies themselves, but they were every bit as weakened by injury as their more illustrious opponents and had no great expectation of victory. When Best, the Irish hooker and captain for the night, acknowledged a few moments after the final whistle that the hosts had shown more appetite for the contest, it was a terrible admission. Hunger should never, ever, be an issue for the Lions.
Certain allowances must be made: the visitors’ back division featured three first-time Lions, two of whom had trained for less than two hours and were still suffering the effects of long-haul air travel, and an infinitely more experienced colleague, Shane Williams, who had been dragged out of semi-retirement in Japan to fill a gaping hole on the wing. Also, these were the Lions’ lambs – the men whose dream of starting the first Test ended the moment they were named in this line-up.
But it hurts, all the same. The last time the Lions were beaten by a “local” team was in Pretoria in 1997, when the ferocious “blue bulls” of Northern Transvaal gored them to pieces on the high veld, and nothing like it has happened in this country since 1971. And it hurts all the more because if the tourists were edged anywhere in a game with next to no rugby on show, it was at the breakdown – the very area the Wallabies will target over the next three weekends.
While the Lions fielded a back-row unit that would not, at the start of this trip, have looked out of place on Test day, the Brumbies went in without the world-class scavengers David Pocock and George Smith and still had themselves a ball at the tackle area. Peter Kimlin, the No 8 released from Wallaby camp for this game, was superb – “a real nuisance”, as the England lock Geoff Parling put it. So too was the open-side flanker Colby Fainga’a, tipped by the home coach Jake White for international honours in the future.
A similar story unfolded in midfield, where the Brumbies made hit after telling hit behind the advantage line. Tevita Kuridrani was the host with the most in this regard, making life a thorough misery for the Lions’ recent arrivals in the centre, Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt. What was more, he claimed the only try of the contest, bumping and bouncing through Christian Wade and Rob Kearney like a human dodgem to touch down inside five minutes.
From there on in, the match was nothing short of canine: if there was one dogfight on the floor, there was a second at the line-out. It was the Brumbies who bared their teeth most effectively in this latter phase too, partly through Kimlin’s athleticism and partly because of Best’s inability to hit a cow’s backside with a banjo, as the old saying has it.
If the Ulsterman had been throwing a boomerang rather than a ball – and at times, he seemed to be doing just that – it wouldn’t have come back. One wag suggested that the skipper’s after-match comments were his first accurate delivery of the evening, and it was hard to argue. How the Australians sniggered.
Things improved marginally in the second half when Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, unloaded his bench – something he had been reluctant to do, given the probable Test involvement of Richard Hibbard, Alex Corbisiero, Geoff Parling and Owen Farrell, among others. Parling made his mark by sorting things at the line-out while Farrell sank a couple of penalties to close a 14-6 deficit to 14-12. The second of them, a wicked 45-metre shot from a desperate angle on the “wrong” side of the field, was an absolute pearl.
Yet somehow, it never looked like being enough. The Brumbies, relying heavily on the intelligent kicking game of the outstanding full-back Jesse Mogg, responded to Farrell’s strike by setting up camp in the Lions half and as the clock ticked down, the hoke forwards controlled the ball well enough with their pick-and-go routine to force one last scrum. When possession was duly secured once again, there were wild celebrations in a city not exactly renowned for letting its hair down.
For Jake White, the World Cup-winning Springbok coach who has spent the last couple of seasons reasserting the Brumbies’ authority over the Australian provincial scene, it was a blissful moment. “I grew up in South Africa when the massive ’74 Lions came to my country and the names of those players lives on,” he said. “ To achieve this with such a young side – they have only 28 caps between them, and Clyde Rathbone has 26 of them - is as big as it gets.”
Gatland was rather less lyrical and with good reason, for he must save the best of his talking for the next 72 hours. The future of this Lions venture will hang on the words he chooses to utter.
Scorers: Brumbies: Try: Kuridrani. Penalties: Mogg 3. Lions – Penalties: Hogg 2, Farrell 2.
ACT Brumbies: J Mogg; H Speight, T Kuridrani, A Smith, C Rathbone; M Toomua, I Prior; R Smith, S Siliva, S Sio, L Power, S Carter, S Fardy, C Fainga’a, P Kimlin (capt).
Replacements: J Mann-Rea for Siliva 56; J Smiler for Carter 66; R Coleman for Rathbone 71; Z Holmes for Smith 75; E Oosthuizen for Power 75.
Lions: R Kearney (Leinster); C Wade (Wasps), B Barritt (Saracens), W Twelvetrees (Gloucester), S Williams (Mitsubishi Dynaboars); S Hogg (Glasgow), B Youngs (Leicester); R Grant (Glasgow), R Best (Ulster, capt), M Stevens (Saracens), I Evans (Ospreys), R Gray (Sale), S O’Brien (Leinster), J Tipuric (Ospreys), T Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons).
Replacements: A Corbisiero (London Irish) for Grant 56; R Hibbard (Ospreys) for Best 56; D Cole (Leicester) for Stevens 56; D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons) for O’Brien 56; O Farrell (Saracens) for Hogg 59; C Murray (Munster) for Youngs 59; G Parling (Leicester) for Evans 59; S Zebo (Munster) for Williams 68.
Referee: J Garces (France).