British and Irish Lions 2013: Lack of killer instinct gives Warren Gatland serious cause for concern
Coach bemoans poor 'game management' after tourists fail to put Wallabies out of sight
Heaven knows, the Lions need not feel guilty about riding their luck against opponents as implacable as the Wallabies: but for the bad luck they suffered on their previous visit to this country in 2001 – not to mention the savage misfortune that plagued them in South Africa four years ago – they would have had no luck at all.
Even so, it is imperative they keep Saturday's precious 23-21 victory against Australia in perspective. The same level of performance in Melbourne six days hence will surely produce a very different outcome.
That nobody was celebrating this as a repeat of the famous "sack of Brisbane" in 2001 was fairly obvious even before the England lock Geoff Parling sat down to chew the fat yesterday, and became crystal clear once he spoke. "I was sitting next to Dan Cole [his Leicester club-mate and fellow tight forward] in the dressing room after the final whistle," he recalled, "and said to him: 'My wife has just given birth to a healthy daughter and I've just played in a winning Lions Test against the Aussies, but it doesn't feel like that.' It almost felt as though we'd lost. There was no sense of jubilation. It was quiet in there."
The calm after the storm? No, this was silence of another kind: serious, sombre, almost grave. The Lions knew that despite their superior armoury up front and the fact that they had frequently looked more dangerous than the Wallabies with ball in hand – leaving aside those occasions when the astonishing Israel Folau found himself in possession – they had repeatedly come up with ways of keeping the home team in the game. Rugby may be a sport for magnanimous spirits, but misplaced generosity is one of its deadlier sins.
Warren Gatland had a number of issues, not all of them to do with the inconsistent, over-officious performance of the New Zealand referee Chris Pollock, who made a handful of major calls that were downright wrong and one or two others that had even less going for them. Yesterday, after a few hours' sleep, the Lions head coach was less condemnatory than he had been immediately after the contest, but he was still a long way short of satisfied.
His greater concern was what he called his side's "game management": in other words, the poor decision-making and execution skills, not least by Mike Phillips and Jamie Heaslip in the "spine" positions of scrum-half and No 8, that allowed an outscrummaged Wallaby pack to turn the tables at the set-piece in the final quarter and prevented the Lions from capitalising on the physical disintegration of an Australian back division that had been subjected to the Wallaby equivalent of the retreat from Moscow.
Christian Leali'ifano, Berrick Barnes and Pat McCabe all left the field on stretchers, the first of them inside a minute, while players as influential as Adam Ashley-Cooper and Digby Ioane were reduced to passenger status long before the end. The Australians ended up with a flanker at inside centre, a scrum-half on the left wing and poor Kurtley Beale, fresh out of drinker's rehab and still confronting his demons with the help of a counsellor, at the hub of things.
That Beale should have been the one lumbered with a last-ditch shot at goal that would have given his country the spoils was too cruel for words. That the Lions should have put themselves in that position in the first place was something close to a travesty. Had the Wallabies won in the face of such barely imaginable adversity, they would have travelled to Melbourne with unstoppable momentum behind them.
Having shanked a far easier shot six minutes previously, there was never much chance of the flawed and fragile Beale nailing the "big one" from twice the distance: a Herculean task under the circumstances, one that might well have been beyond Leali'ifano, the first-choice kicker, let alone the fourth alternative. As it was, the poor man slipped and fell on contact. And therein lay another tale of woe.
Gatland said he was "surprised that Beale came off the bench with those oldy-mouldy boots", adding: "The pitch wasn't easy for kickers. We've had that issue a lot with Wales at the Millennium Stadium and we've told the players on lots of occasions to make sure they have the correct footwear. You have to turn up with the right tools. It's part of your job, making sure you're properly prepared."
Preparation was not a problem for the Lions, who started with great confidence – their early scrummaging was everything an old front-rower like Gatland had dreamt of seeing – and showed not the slightest sign of panic even when the brilliant Wallaby half-back Will Genia, the best player on view by a margin, wrong-footed the tourists with a long run out of his 22 and gave Folau a first opportunity to confirm his credentials as the most exhilarating Wallaby back-line talent since Lote Tuqiri. Maybe since David Campese.
Folau's second try was even better, for it showcased his potency in the air – his seizure of a ball that the Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny rightly considered his for the taking was a striking feat of athleticism – as well as in broken field. Jonathan Sexton, Alex Corbisiero and the exasperated Halfpenny all thought they might interrupt his effortless progress to the line, only to be disabused of the notion in the most public of manners.
Happily for the tourists, they had a weapons-grade wing of their own in George North, who split Folau's tries with a magical score down the left and went within a gnat's crotchet of claiming a second tight to the corner-flag five minutes later. That additional five-pointer eventually fell to an equally tall, if less effective Welshman in the shape of Alex Cuthbert, who, eight minutes after the restart, cut an intelligent roaming line past the unfortunate flanker Michael Hooper, who had just been redeployed in midfield following the departure of McCabe and failed to read the Lions' movement behind Brian O'Driscoll's dummy run.
With Halfpenny continuing to hit the spot with his marksmanship – his tour tally now stands at 27 successful shots from 29 attempts – the Lions were perfectly placed to pull away, especially as the Wallabies were missing their own attempts at goal. But the tourists did not pull away. Instead, they found themselves being dragged, kicking and screaming, into a last-quarter dogfight that could easily have changed everything.
Will the Wallabies draw strength from their resilience and play better for longer in Melbourne? Yes, not least because they must. Will they pick up injuries on the grand scale of Saturday? It is difficult to imagine. The Lions have been warned: it's not done yet.
Scorers: Australia: Tries Folau 2; Conversion O'Connor; Penalties Beale 2, O'Connor. Lions: Tries North, Cuthbert; Conversions Halfpenny 2; Penalties Halfpenny 3.
Australia: B Barnes (K Beale, 38); I Folau, A Ashley-Cooper (N Phipps, 76), C Leali'ifano (P McCabe, 52secs; L Gill, 46), D Ioane; J O'Connor, W Genia; B Robinson (J Slipper, 68), S Moore, B Alexander (S Kepu, 57), K Douglas (R Simmons, 68), J Horwill (capt), B Mowen, M Hooper, W Palu.
British & Irish Lions: L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, B O'Driscoll, J Davies, G North; J Sexton, M Phillips (B Youngs, 61); A Corbisiero (M Vunipola, 51), T Youngs (R Hibbard, 64), A Jones (D Cole, 51), A W Jones (G Parling, 70), P O'Connell, T Croft (D Lydiate, 72), S Warburton (capt), J Heaslip.
Referee: C Pollock (New Zealand).
Battle of Brisbane: Test by numbers
8/8 The Lions have now won all eight of their Test matches in Brisbane
1 Brian O'Driscoll won his first Lions Test since his debut in 2001
14 Turnovers conceded by Australia, compared to three by the Lions
Controversial referee Mk II - Craig Joubert
The Lions left Brisbane on Monday still muttering about the New Zealand referee Chris Pollock, who they believe almost cost them victory in the first Test. This weekend, proceedings will be controlled by another controversial official: the South African banker Craig Joubert, who ran the last World Cup final between the All Blacks and France.
The French were deeply disenchanted with his handling of that final, equally dissatisfied with his performance in their 2012 Six Nations match against Wales and openly blamed him for their defeat by England in this year's tournament.
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