Australia 16 British & Irish Lions 15 match report: Late heartbreak for Leigh Halfpenny as Lions are taken to decider
Levelled series goes down to Sydney as tearful Welsh marksman misses winning kick in last second – echoing Beale drama of the previous Test
Maybe it was always meant to be this way: one climactic, balls-out, knee-clenching contest in Sydney, where the Wallabies are often at their strongest and the Lions know what it is to suffer the torments of rugby hell. This second Test went down to the final shot at goal in the very last second, just as the first one did in Brisbane and, once again, the kicker was left distraught. Someone up there is playing games with people's souls.
Leigh Halfpenny, the dead-eyed Welsh marksman who started the match having missed just twice in almost 30 attempts since making his tour bow, was the man charged with the do-or-die duties on this occasion. While he did not slip and fall flat on his backside, as Kurtley Beale had done the previous week, he did not quite find the sweet spot with a 57-metre penalty from left field. He and Beale had this much in common, though: both felt the significance of their failures so intensely that the tears began to flow.
If the Wallabies would have been judged lucky had Beale done the business in Brisbane, the Lions would have been considered highly fortunate to clinch a first series win in 16 years off the back of a successful Halfpenny howitzer.
They turned round 12-9 to the good after a tourniquet-tight first half in which Sam Warburton, their outstanding captain, shaded the back-row battle with a series of bold turnover tricks at the breakdown. But thereafter, the tourists' problems at scrum and line-out began to hurt them.
Had the Wallabies' premier-league creative spirits – Beale at full-back, James O'Connor at outside-half – been in their best form, they would surely have put distance between the two sides after the break as the Lions ran out of possession and ceded territory by the mile. Instead, they fumbled the ball under pressure and attempted too many "miracle passes". Time and again, Australian momentum was slowed by unforced errors.
As the clock ticked down and the tension rose, there was no guarantee of the home side holding their nerve sufficiently to keep the series alive. But when Warburton, operating at the peak of his powers at the very epicentre of a savagely hard contest, collapsed in a heap 14 minutes from time – with a hamstring injury, apparently, rather than with a recurrence of a long-standing knee problem – the Wallabies sensed an opportunity and went after it with a surge of energy bordering on the demonic.
First, the wing sensation Israel Folau was freed in space down the right and beat three men with a liquid run before being dragged to earth by the deeply committed Halfpenny. The Lions were caught offside as the Wallabies continued to lay siege through the hard-driving hooker, Stephen Moore, and after opting for a scrum – a mere penalty was no good to them – they tried to put Folau away a second time, on this occasion towards the left touchline. When the home midfielders over-complicated things once again, the Irish scrum-half Connor Murray was strong enough to snuff out the danger and the tourists breathed again.
But the die was cast now. Four minutes later – and less than six minutes from time – Folau threatened again, as did the somewhat less athletic tight-head prop, Sekope Kepu. Eventually, the great conductor of this Wallaby symphony, Will Genia, decided the moment was right to summon the crescendo. The ball went left at pace to O'Connor, whose pass, perfectly delayed to the split-second, gave Adam Ashley-Cooper a route to the line for a try nervelessly converted by the new inside centre, Christian Leali'ifano.
It left the Lions feeling sick to the pits of their stomachs, and they felt even worse when, having won a line-out on the Wallaby 22 when O'Connor messed up his clearance routine, the replacement Wallaby flanker, Liam Gill, pinched possession. The line-out had been a serious issue for the tourists all night. Now, they found themselves paying through the nose for their inadequacy in a crucial phase of the game.
Even then the Wallabies could not close it out. Gill was penalised for hanging on to the ball at a ruck as his side tried to play out time with a series of pick-and-go drives, and when the Lions ran from deep, they forced another Australian back-rower, Ben Mowen, into a further transgression. So it was that Halfpenny placed his tee on halfway – and so it was that he under-clubbed.
Really, the Lions could not complain, even though they will be grief stricken at seeing this one slip away by so narrow a margin. They were never comfortable at the scrum, where the inexperienced Mako Vunipola, nothing short of magnificent around the field, was penalised three times and cost his side six points as a consequence. In addition to the line-out calamities, there was also a transparent lack of hard, front-foot running in midfield, partly because the quality of ball was poor and partly because the England half-back Ben Youngs had one of his difficult days.
In the final analysis, the tourists missed every hair on the heads of their two injured tight forwards, the prop Alex Corbisiero and the lock Paul O'Connell. Had they been there, it may well have been different. But then, if the dog hadn't stopped, it would have won the race. There is nothing left for the tourists now but to re-group, re-think their set-piece approach and gird their loins for one last 80-minute blast.
Australia K Beale; I Folau, A Ashley-Cooper, C Leali'ifano, J Tomane; J O'Connor, W Genia; B Robinson, S Moore, B Alexander, K Douglas, J Horwill (capt), B Mowen, M Hooper, W Palu. Replacements R Simmons for Douglas 52; S Kepu for Alexander 58; J Slipperfor Robinson 60-76; L Gill for Palu 60; R Horne for Ashley-Cooper 77.
Lions L Halfpenny; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, J Davies, G North; J Sexton, B Youngs; M Vunipola, T Youngs, A Jones, A W Jones, G Parling, D Lydiate, S Warburton (capt), J Heaslip. Replacements C Murray for B Youngs 53; R Hibbard for T Youngs 55; D Cole for A Jones 58; S O'Brien for Heaslip 63; T Croft for Warburton 66
Referee C Joubert (South Africa)
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