NSW Waratahs 17 Lions 47 match report: Warren Gatland reassured by pack's power while desperately rebuilding his back division
Warren Gatland has seen most of the things rugby has to offer, including a close-up and personal view of a Lions pack in full retreat, but as he contemplated his bare bones back division on Sunday, he was forced to confess that this was a new one on him. "The forwards are holding themselves together; the backs are taking the knocks," he said. "It's meant to be the other way round. It's not a situation I've experienced before, and it's tough."
The good news is that Robbie Deans, the Wallaby coach, cannot have a clear idea of how the Lions will shape up outside the scrum when the Test series begins in Brisbane this coming Saturday, and as a consequence, all the plotting and planning he has been doing up there on the Sunshine Coast may come to nothing. The bad news? Deans doesn't know what he thought he knew because Gatland doesn't know what he thought he knew either. If the tourists leave Queensland one up with two to play having seen their three-quarter line shredded by injury, it will be a major achievement.
When the Lions took the field against Queensland Reds in the nearest thing Australia has to a union-crazy town nine days ago, the road ahead seemed clear. Pound to a penny, the Test back division would feature Tommy Bowe and George North on the wings, with Jamie Roberts at centre alongside either Brian O'Driscoll or Manu Tuilagi. As of yesterday, O'Driscoll, 34, was the last man standing, the others having been horizontalised by one form of orthopaedic misery or another.
This changes everything. Whoever plays on the wings against the Wallabies will bring their own skill-set to the party, but they will not gatecrash their hosts in the ultra-physical fashion associated with Bowe, definitely out of the running for this Test, and North, who is nowhere near fit at present.
As for the midfield, the only specialist inside-centre still on his feet is Billy Twelvetrees, the Englishman summoned as a replacement last week. He makes his Lions debut against the ACT Brumbies in Canberra tomorrow and is not thought to be under consideration for a starting place in Brisbane.
Late on Saturday night, some three hours after this excellent, occasionally exhilarating five-try victory over a pumped-up Waratahs outfit who fully intended to leave their mark – preferably many marks – on the tourists, Gatland and his fellow coaches were completing their body count and making more decisions on reinforcements. They decided on the new England wing Christian Wade, his battle-hardened countryman Brad Barritt and… wait for it… the semi-retired Shane Williams. Nostradamus would have had to be on a real roll to see that one coming.
Yet Gatland, an All Black hooker who was in the middle of the Waikato front row when the Lions were ritually humiliated in Hamilton almost exactly 20 years ago, could at least take solace in the performance of this modern-day red-shirted pack. To a man, his forwards refused to concede an inch to the locals, and three of them – hooker Tom Youngs, lock Alun Wyn Jones and flanker Tom Croft – played out of their skins.
"We're not going to be bullied as a side; we're not going to start taking backward steps because some big boys are out there pushing and shoving and throwing punches," said Croft, who balanced his state-of-the-art work at the line-out and his high-octane running game with some old-fashioned "mongrel" at close quarters.
"But it's been made clear to us that there's no point lashing out and getting banned from the Tests. I thought we handled ourselves well in a legal way, taking it to them at the scrum and in contact. There was a lot of off-the-ball stuff going on, but the boys are keeping their heads."
Even outside the scrum, where things continued to fall apart fitness-wise when Roberts twanged a hamstring, there were sources of comfort for the coaches. Jonathan Davies had looked as though he would be the best player on tour not to start a Test – the 2013 version of Will Greenwood and Allan Bateman circa 1997 – but he performed so well here, it would be a profound injustice to deny him a place against the Wallabies this weekend.
His try late in the game was a ho-hum effort, not so much a sprint to the line as a jog, but the centre played an important role in others of far greater quality, including a second-half blinder from Leigh Halfpenny.
Speaking of whom, it is now legitimate to ask whether anyone in Lions history has swung a better boot in the build-up to a Test series? The full-back has lined up 23 shots at goal on this tour, and nailed all but one of them. "Christ, that boy can kick," said Croft with the serene smile of a forward who rests easy in the knowledge that his hard work at the coalface stands a better than even chance of being reflected on the scoreboard.
Halfpenny is the man of the moment, although he may yet be challenged by the Irish outside-half Jonny Sexton, who is walking the tightrope of his rugby imagination with a reassuring air of certainty despite being smacked around by every Australian who gets within range, and the England prop Mako Vunipola, whose ball-carrying and off-loading are of a calibre far beyond anything that could be expected of a man in his first season at international level.
Much of what the Lions forwards did in Sydney on Saturday will have alarmed the Australians. "It's very clear that they're excellent at the tackle area on both sides of the ball, because we had no joy there despite putting some sledgehammers into the rucks," conceded Michael Cheika, the Waratahs coach.
Sadly, the tourists have worries of their own. You have to be in it to win it, as the saying goes, and just at the moment, too many big players – in all senses of the phrase – are out of it.
NSW Waratahs: Tries Carter 2; Conversions McKibbin 2; Penalties McKibbin. British and Irish Lions: Tries Halfpenny 2, Sexton, Croft, Davies. Conversions Halfpenny 4, Farrell; Penalties Halfpenny 4.
NSW Waratahs D Mitchell; C Crawford, R Horne, T Carter, P Betham; B Foley, B McKibbin; J Tilse, J Ulugia, P Ryan, W Skelton, O Atkins, J Holloway, P McCutcheon, D Dennis (capt). Replacements T Kingston for Carter, 46; L Timani for Holloway, 49; A J Gilbert for McCutcheon, 55; B Volavola for Betham, 71; M Lucas for McKibbin, 72; R Aho for Tilse, 72; L Holmes for Ulugia, 72; S Talakai for Ryan, 72.
Lions: L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); S Maitland (Glasgow), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Zebo (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), M Phillips (Bayonne); M Vunipola (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), A Jones (Ospreys), A W Jones (Ospreys), P O'Connell (Munster), T Croft (Leicester), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues; capt), J Heaslip (Leinster) Replacements: O Farrell (Saracens) for Sexton, 49; R Kearney (Leinster) for Halfpenny, 59; B Youngs (Leicester) for Phillips, 59; A Corbisiero (London Irish) for Vunipola, 59; R Hibbard (Ospreys) for T Youngs, 59; D Cole (Leicester) for A Jones, 59; G Parling (Leicester) for O'Connell, 59; D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons) for Croft, 59.
Referee J Peyper (SA).
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