Australia v The Lions: Honours end even in clash of two titans

George North and Israel Folau add a compelling rivalry to the spectacle

George North, a cross between a bull and a ballet dancer, scored one of the great Lions tries in a First Test of unremitting tension and ferocity. Panic running, he called it. The rest of the rugby world was enraptured by its grace and beauty, his combination of power and dexterity.

Israel Folau did not deserve to finish on the losing side. He scored two tries of comparable quality, examples of muscularity and suppleness at speed. He also denied North a second try with a goal-line tackle of blind desperation and raw strength.

The tone of this series has been set. Though the most fabled rivalries in sport are shaped by differences in style and demeanour – think Leonard against Duran, Ali against Frazier, Senna against Prost, Nicklaus against Palmer – theirs will be fuelled by their similarity

North and Folau are the type of players to whom the unconverted can relate. Rugby union is a game of arcane laws, interpreted selectively depending upon whether it is staged in the southern or northern hemisphere. Yet when big men are thrown together there is a disarming simplicity to the challenge and a compelling drama to the spectacle.

These two are finishers, pure and simple, men who can think clearly and act positively under the most intense pressure. Each has a Ferrari engine beneath the bonnet of an armour-plated Hummer. Their fast feet and sinuous body movement is mesmerising. Their collisions had a cartoon intensity that statistics could not reflect.

It seems inconceivable that North ran only 65 metres with the ball in hand – the most by any Lion, but at odds with the sequence of mental images he created. Folau marked his rugby union debut for Australia by carrying the ball for 107 metres. Already we are wondering about the relative merits of nature and nurture.

North was born in King's Lynn to a Welsh mother and English father, an airman who took the family to Hong Kong for the first two years of George's life. His progress has been spectacular but conventional, in that his code is embedded in his community. His promise, illustrated by a try-scoring debut for Wales at the age of 18, has been quickly realised.

Folau was born in New South Wales to parents of Tongan descent. At 24 he is three years older, half an inch taller and two stones lighter than the Lions wing. He is an athlete of remarkable versatility, the only Australian to have represented his country in both rugby codes and also to have played Australian Rules football at the highest level.

In rugby league, he scored five tries in seven games for Australia, five in five games for Queensland and 37 from 38 games for Brisbane Broncos. He has crossed for eight tries in 14 games for the NSW Waratahs in less than five months of Super 15 rugby union.

The pair's importance to their respective teams cannot be overstated. North's recovery from a hamstring injury effectively involved dismantling his body clock. He received ice treatment every two hours for 72 hours in the build-up to what was universally acknowledged as a critically important First Test.

Folau's significance grows, because of the physical and mental toll of yesterday's defeat on the Wallabies. He was involved in the game's most worrying moment, when North unintentionally propelled him head first into team-mate Berrick Barnes. The Australian full-back, who has a history of concussion problems, was caught flush on the chin by Folau's head. In an age in which player welfare rightly assumes primary importance, it is surely unlikely that Barnes will play again in this series.

It was the sort of game in which tacklers had the durability of crash-test dummies and the mentality of fighter pilots. Adam Ashley-Cooper, a fixture of Wallabies teams since 2005, attempted to play on after having a dislocated shoulder wrenched back into place.

But bravery is not merely a physical act. Folau owed his opening try, from his first touch of the ball, to Will Genia having the courage to trust his instincts and take a tap penalty inside his own 22 before embarking on a jinking, 60-metre run. That required the sort of nerve which was found wanting in Kurtley Beale, with such debilitating consequences.

So what went through North's mind when he claimed a Barnes kick on his own 10-metre line and put his 17-stone frame through the gears? "Run hard, and hopefully the gaps will open."

Simple and memorably effective.


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