Lions sharpen teeth in rare full-blooded battle before Wallabies date
Tourists win their most challenging match so far as Gatland bemoans lack of hard tour games
Every silver lining has a big black cloud in the middle of it – any Lions coach will tell you that much – so Warren Gatland was not quite in a state of bliss yesterday, despite the deeply reassuring nature of his team's 22-12 victory over the best of Australia's pre-Test opposition. If Tommy Bowe's busted hand was the obvious negative arising from a match that might have touched the very heights but for the rain that slowed the tempo in the second half, it was far from the only one.
Gatland's most pressing issue has nothing to do with orthopaedics and everything to do with scheduling – something he cannot even begin to address, as it is already set in stone.
"We're two matches light on this tour," he said yesterday. "Another couple of games ahead of the first Test would have been perfect, but we don't have them."
The Lions were craving a proper competitive clash after the slow- motion steam-rollering of the Barbarians in the sweatshop of Hong Kong and the unsatisfactory stroll through the unmanned barricades of Western Force in Perth, and they were granted their wish here. The Reds, driven along at a furious pace by the boldly imaginative Quade Cooper, emptied themselves of ideas, of energy… of pretty much everything they had, only to founder on the twin rocks of the tourists' set-piece game: the scrum, which resulted in a points victory for the men in red, and the line-out, which was a knockout, pure and simple.
"That was the victory, right there," said Gatland, an All Black front- rower of yore who understands that even in "Cooperland", where rugby starts at 100mph and then accelerates, the old rules still apply. "Our scrum was excellent, our line-out defence very strong. I don't think there's been enough recognition of that. We need to give a huge amount of credit to those parts of our game.
"It reminded me of an old- fashioned tour match, with a provincial team coming out and throwing everything at the visitors. We faced a huge barrage in the opening period and had to soak it up. We did that well, I think – I was really happy with the way the blokes in the back line coped, because when you look at their ages we had some real babies out there – and I'm proud of the performance all round. The problem is that we probably won't experience anything like it again. You don't face tough teams all the time on a tour like this, so a couple more lead-in games would have been ideal."
Tomorrow's match a couple of hours down the road in Newcastle is against a "country XV" – by definition, a side drawn from players lower down the evolutionary scale than the Reds brigade – while this weekend's meeting with the New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney will be devalued by the absence of a dozen or more locals, many of them hidden away in the Wallaby camp. The ACT Brumbies should be dangerous enough in Canberra in eight days' time, but by then the Test selection debate will be over.
It follows, then, that those who seized the moment here in Brisbane did themselves a power of good in terms of the crucial discussions ahead. Chief among them were George North, the Welsh wing; Ben Youngs, the England scrum-half; and a couple of red-rose forwards, the loose-head prop Mako Vunipola and the lock Geoff Parling. It may be that of this quartet, only North and Vunipola are favourites for a place against the Wallabies when the roadshow returns to this city in 12 days' time, but at the very least, the others have forced their names on to the agenda.
Parling's mastery of the line-out was at the heart of a victory the Lions hierarchy could not be certain of securing ahead of kick-off, thanks to their wholly commendable but undeniably risky policy of giving every fit member of the 37-man squad a start in the first tranche of fixtures. He also contributed a try-saving tackle on the Reds wing Rod Davies deep in the final quarter, when his second-rower's lungs were just about at bursting point and the home backs were threatening to pull something out of the fire.
As for Youngs, who scored the Lions' only try, there was a range to his game that placed him in a separate category to either of his rivals for the No 9 shirt: Mike Phillips of Wales, the Lions Test incumbent with the route-one style to end them all, and Conor Murray, the Irishman who seems, on the face of it, to have been hacked from the same slab of granite.
"There was a subtlety about Ben's performance – he's a different type to the others, posing a different kind of threat," Gatland said. "That's what you want, isn't it? He's a good leader, confident in his own ability. He really put his hand up."
For all that, the top-of-the-bill acts were Vunipola, the young prop with the old man's face whose game is developing at such velocity on this tour, and North, who replaced the injured Manu Tuilagi at the end of the first quarter and tipped the scales the Lions' way with a series of powerful runs that laid waste to the Reds' prized defensive system. That the Lions scored only one try – and a rather questionable one at that – was almost an insult to the Welshman's performance. Both Owen Farrell and Sam Warburton might easily have taken the opportunities he created for them.
It was the Queenslanders who won the try-count contest, thanks to Luke Morahan's spellbinding solo score early in the first half and Nick Frisby's clever finish after being released by Davies late in the second. But with Farrell – who together with Leigh Halfpenny has yet to miss a shot since setting foot in this country – in prime kicking form, the Lions won where it mattered. If only they could play more games that matter before their first date with the Wallabies.
Queensland Reds: Tries Morahan, Frisby; Conversion Cooper. British and Irish Lions: Try Youngs; Conversion Farrell; Penalties Farrell 5.
Queensland Reds B Lucas; R Davies, B Tapuai, A Fainga'a, L Morahan; Q Cooper (capt), N Frisby; B Daley, J Hanson, G Holmes, A Wallace-Harrison, E O'Donoghue, E Quirk, B Robinson, J Schatz Replacements R Samo for O'Donoghue, 11-18; A Anae for Daley, 22; J Owen for Holmes, 35; D Shipperley for Morahan, 44; M Harris for Fainga'a, 52; J Butler for Robinson, 54; Samo for Wallace-Harrison, 54; J Lance for Frisby, 64; Frisby for Lucas, 69; S Denny for Anae, 76.
British and Irish Lions: S Hogg (Glasgow); A Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), M Tuilagi (Leicester), J Davies (Scarlets), T Bowe (Ulster); O Farrell (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester); M Vunipola (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), M Stevens (Saracens), R Gray (Sale), G Parling (Leicester), D Lydiate (Newport-Gwent Dragons), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues; capt), T Faletau (Newport-Gwent Dragons). Replacements: G North (Scarlets) for Tuilagi, 19; J Sexton (Leinster) for Bowe, 47; D Cole (Leicester) for Vunipola, 64; R Hibbard (Ospreys) for T Youngs, 64; A Jones (Ospreys) for Stevens, 64; P O'Connell (Munster) for Gray, 64; J Tipuric (Ospreys) for Warburton, 75.
Referee J Garces (Fr).
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