Sometimes the gods of rugby are simply too cruel. At the very last knockings of a compelling opening Test match, the Wallaby back Kurtley Beale, fresh out of rehab and not obviously in the optimum state to play a game of this magnitude, was asked to kick a 46-metre penalty that would win the game for his country. He slipped on contact, misconnected and had to be helped from the field by his colleagues, his emotions plummeting in a downward spiral of pure misery.
Few in the crowd would have wished such a situation on their worst enemy. Beale, who is still receiving counselling for his alcohol-related issues and started this match on the bench, had been forced to take on the kicking responsibilities because outside-half James O'Connor was having a rough one with the boot and every other kicker had been broken by the ferocity of the physicality.
He struck gold with his first shot, from pretty much the same place as he would miss his last one, and then brought the surging Wallabies to within two points with a short-range kick when the Lions lock Paul O'Connell was penalised at a ruck 13 minutes from time. But he shanked an opportunity on 74 minutes following a tough penalty call against the tourists' prop Mako Vunipola, and that failure wrecked his fragile confidence. In truth, subsequent events did not come as a complete surprise.
So it was that the Lions, powered by their confrontational pack for the first hour, made it across the finishing line.
The Wallabies were in bits come close of play – and not just in terms of their spirits. They lost Christian Leali'ifano, their debutant centre and No 1 goal-kicker, to a heavy concussion before a minute had passed; saw their full-back Berrick Barnes, another potential marksman, leave on a stretcher at the end of the first period; and then saw Pat McCabe, another midfielder, leave the fray with a neck injury within seven minutes of the restart.
When their last remaining centre, Adam Ashley-Cooper, was led from the field midway through the final quarter the home side found themselves playing with a flanker in the No 12 position and a substitute scrum-half where their left-wing should have been. Robbie Deans, their ashen-faced coach, was fully justified in describing his side's performance as "deeply courageous".
Deans will take some comfort from the fact that the sensational wing Israel Folau played his first rugby union Test as though it were his hundredth and looked for all the world like the game's next superstar. He scored two first-half tries, the first from a characteristically intelligent break by the scrum-half Will Genia to open the scoring in the 13th minute and the second towards the end of the first half.
This was a try to stun the mind. First, the former rugby league international and big-time Aussie Rules player picked a ball out of air, brushing aside Leigh Halfpenny as though the Welsh full-back were no more than a gnat. He then took a pass from the flanker Ben Mowen, beat three Lions all ends up – Jonathan Sexton, Alex Corbisiero and Halfpenny – and finished brilliantly to the right of the sticks.
It hit the Lions in the tender parts, for they had seemed in control. Their tight forwards, particularly Corbisiero, had the measure of their rivals from the start, both at the set-piece and in open field, while the centre Jonathan Davies, who had knocked the unfortunate Leali'ifano spark out on his first carry – accidentally, but comprehensively – often unsettled a skittish Wallaby midfield.
And then there was George North, the Lions' Folau. His try early in the second quarter, with the tourists 7-3 down, was every bit as jaw-dropping as his opponent's: a powerful surge from his own 22 took him through McCabe and away from O'Connor, and when he slipped on the dancing shoes to beat the covering Barnes, there was nothing even the outstanding Genia could do to interrupt his glory run to the left corner.
With Halfpenny continuing to nail his kicks – he would miss only once, while the Wallaby kickers let 14 points slip away – the Lions kept their noses ahead, and when the wing Alex Cuthbert took ruthless advantage of the Australians' make-do-and-mend back-line with a roaming try behind Brian O'Driscoll's dummy run, it seemed they would win with something to spare.
These Wallabies are made of stern stuff, though. Having been outscrummaged for threequarters of the contest, they turned the tables at two late set-pieces. The first mugging of the Lions pack allowed them to escape from a perilous position deep in their own 22. The second earned them the last-ditch penalty shot that might have won them the match. But, as they discovered to their bitter regret, "might have" is the most useless phrase in sport.
Australia: B Barnes; I Folau, A Ashley-Cooper, C Leali'ifano, D Ioane; J O'Connor, W Genia; B Robinson, S Moore, B Alexander, K Douglas, J Horwill (capt), B Mowen, M Hooper, W Palu. Replacements K Beale for Barnes, 38; L Gill for McCabe, 46; P McCabe for Leali'ifano, 52; S Kepu for Alexander, 57; J Slipper for Robinson, 68; R Simmonds for Douglas, 68; N Phipps for Ashley-Cooper, 76.
Lions: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, B O'Driscoll, J Davies, G North; J Sexton, M Phillips; A Corbisiero, T Youngs, A Jones, A W Jones, P O'Connell, T Croft, S Warburton (capt), J Heaslip. Replacements M Vunipola for Corbisiero, 51; D Cole for A Jones, 51; B Youngs for Phillips, 61; R Hibbard for T Youngs, 64; G Parling for A W Jones, 70; D Lydiate for Croft, 72.
Referee C Pollock (New Zealand).Reuse content