The Lions are still struggling to see the funny side of the controversial James Horwill acquittal: “He’s a lucky, lucky boy,” remarked the great Irish centre Brian O’Driscoll as he reflected on the Wallaby captain’s right boot and its proximity to the head of Alun Wyn Jones durring last weekend’s Brisbane Test. But they were smiling broadly enough as the dirt-trackers’ team ran down the curtain on their midweek show, and with good reason.
Dan Lydiate’s team of Test outsiders put five tries past the Melbourne Rebels, which was five more than they had managed against the ACT Brumbies in Canberra seven days previously. Just as importantly, they flatly refused to allow their hosts a presence on the scoreboard. The Rebels did not score a single, measly point, largely because the tourists defended as though they were manning the barricades against the Wallabies themselves.
Deep in overtime, the Rebels full-back Jason Woodward – now, there’s a surname to conjure with in the Lions context – thought he saw the faintest glimmer of a chance of a consolation try in the left corner. Before he knew it, four opponents were all over him like a bright red rash. When the final whistle blew, the tacklers congratulated themselves as heartily as if they had just combined to manufacture the unlikeliest of winning scores.
“Yes, I’m pleased with that,” said the head coach Warren Gatland, who had been just about as far from pleased as it was possible to be in the cold and damp of Canberra. “The best thing was the spirit: that really came out in their determination not to concede. We pushed a few passes and made a few errors in attack, but we had given the players a licence to go out there and try things. The defence? That was outstanding.”
This was not a glamour fixture for the Lions’ second-string; there was nothing of the rugby catwalk about it. There was nothing of the cakewalk either. The Rebels, the newest of Australia’s five Super 15 franchises, had the vast majority of their first-choicers available to them and with 30,000 spectators in the ground, they were desperate to put on a performance. This was clear when their captain Gareth Delve, a Welshman who might well have been on a Lion on this tour had his career taken a different turn, made the first big statement of the contest by burying the loose-head prop Ryan Grant with a thunderclap tackle in open field.
But with the visitors’ front row in complete charge of set-piece affairs and the locks catching the eye in all phases – Ian Evans of Wales, an early favourite for a Test spot whose anonymity had been one of the deeper mysteries of the tour, revealed himself in all his glory here – the chances of a second successive midweek upset were minimal at best. When Conor Murray opened the scoring with an opportunist try off some scruffy possession close to the Rebels’ line on 15 minutes, it dawned on the home crowd that this would not be their night.
Three of the remaining scores were equally prosaic: a close-range finish by the excellent Sean O’Brien from a line-out drive; a penalty try awarded when the Rebels’ replacement flanker Jordy Reid dragged down a maul; an all-too-easy show-and scamper job from Ben Youngs. But one was a Lions special in the grand tradition and it came just shy of the half-hour.
Sean Maitland, the Scotland wing who, not for the first time on this trip, played a good deal of intelligent rugby, did everything right after being freed down the left by the off-loading Manu Tuilagi, and when he fed Toby Faletau in the Rebels’ 22, it looked as though the No 8 would finish in style. As it turned out, Faletau was hunted down by the covering Bryce Hegarty, but the ever-willing Maitland made a quick looping run to the opposite side of the field and touched down at the right flag.
And then there was Owen Farrell’s goal-kicking, which, as per usual, lost nothing in comparison to the supreme marksmanship of Leigh Halfpenny, the Welsh full-back who the Lions are hoping and praying will give them a series-winning victory over the Wallabies in this city on Saturday. Farrell slotted three long, wide-angled conversions from the “wrong” side of the field without appearing to bat an eyelid. It has been an astonishing performance from both men.
According to Gatland, the stricken lock Paul O’Connell will stay with the squad for the duration instead of flying home to Ireland to nurse his busted arm. The coach will be grateful for his presence, just as he was grateful for this contribution from a bunch of blokes who must be every bit as disappointed as O’Connell, if for very different reasons.
Corbisiero and Roberts doubts
Warren Gatland is resigned to being without prop Alex Corbisiero and centre Jamie Roberts for the second Test. Corbisiero is "struggling a little bit" to overcome a calf injury picked up in the first Test. "We will see how they are on Thursday, but at this stage it is a little bit doubtful," he said.
Test challengers: Four who partied in the last-chance saloon
The human bowling ball rolled through the opposition on more than one occasion yesterday, thereby confirming his recovery from a tour-threatening shoulder injury. When he jumped in the pool for his recovery session, even the water got out of the way. A decent bet for a Test bench place.
Hardly your traditional lock forward, the 6ft 10in Scot cut a busy figure as he roamed the field looking for mismatches against normal-sized opponents. The shock of blond hair makes him easy to spot, but he was genuinely effective this time. Again, there may be a bench place waiting…
…unless, of course, the big man from Wales beats his partner to it. Evans has been one of the grave disappointments on this tour, so it was heartening to see glimpses of his outstanding Six Nations form: secure at the line-out, hard in contact, energetic in the loose. Better late than never.
Cast in the open-side role, the multitasking loose forward from Co Carlow did everything in his power to press his claim for a place in the Test squad this weekend. Behind Tom Croft and Dan Lydiate in the pecking order, he is more versatile than either. Can he be ignored?
Lions Kearney(Twelvetrees 60); Maitland, Tuilagi, Barritt, Zebo; Farrell(Hogg 52), Murray(Youngs 64); Grant(Court 54), Hibbard(Court 54), Cole(Stevens 54), Gray, Evans, Lydiate(capt(Croft 65), O’Brien(Tipuric 54), Faletau.
Rebels Woodward; English, Inman, Sidey, Mitchell, Hegarty, Burgess; Henderson, Robinson, Weeks, Neville, Pyle, Saffy, Fuglistaller, Delve(capt).