The Lions had long viewed this meeting with one of the world’s great attacking teams as the “fourth Test” of their trek around Australia, so a 10-point victory in front of more than 50,000 spectators in one of rugby’s bearpit arenas came with the sweet taste of honey. But there was a sour note as well: the tourists lost their wing Tommy Bowe to a busted hand, just as he was threatening to recapture the dynamic form he showed against the Springboks four years ago.
Bowe departed just after half-time yesterday and will play no further part in proceedings. On the evidence of his 47-minute contribution, he would certainly have joined George North, the outstanding Wales wing, in the team for the first of three confrontations with the Wallabies, to be played back here in Brisbane in 13 days' time.
It was Bowe's spectacular rampage from his own 22 – a long-range assault that would have resulted in a try for Alex Cuthbert but for a wondrous cover tackle by the Reds wing Luke Morahan – that gave the Lions a foothold in this match, for all the early questions that had been posed by the Reds, fuelled as expected by Quade Cooper's weapons-grade running game. To lose the Ulsterman now is a sickening blow for the Lions.
According to Warren Gatland, their head coach, his staff had already chased Australian cameramen away from training sessions in an effort to prevent them gathering footage that might be of use to the Wallaby plotters and planners. Here, they found themselves chasing shadows as Cooper unleashed his hot-shot backs from all distances and all angles. Had the Reds' line-out not been repeatedly burgled by the England lock Geoff Parling, who contributed strongly on his first start in a red shirt, initial raids from Morahan and Ben Tapuai might have been rewarded on the scoreboard.
But the Lions survived, albeit by the last dwindling layers of tooth skin, and bagged the lead through a 13th-minute penalty from Owen Farrell, who would not miss a shot at goal all night and generally performed at a level twice as high as in the opening match in Hong Kong seven days previously.
Indeed, it was Farrell who responded to a blinding try from Morahan – a clever spin away from Cuthbert deep in his own half, a touch on the turbocharger to burn off Ben Youngs and Sam Warburton, and a finely judged chip over the full-back Stuart Hogg by way of completion – with another perfectly struck three-pointer early in the second quarter.
It was ferociously physical from the start, and while the Lions were the ones left mourning the departure of a crucial player, it was the Reds who came off worst. "There are about 50 stitches in various wounds to our blokes and one of our props has a compound fracture of the toe," reported Ewen McKenzie, their coach. The most badly hurt was the flanker Beau Robinson, who attempted to tackle the powerful Mako Vunipola chin first and suffered for his folly. From Beau Robinson to Bo Peep in a split second.
Vunipola was nothing short of magnificent, the quality of his performance way beyond anything that could reasonably have been expected of a man in his first season of international rugby. Thanks to his startling emergence as a loose-head prop of Test calibre, the Lions may not feel the loss of two vastly more experienced front-row hands, Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins, as profoundly as they might have done.
There was another, more temporary loss for the tourists when the centre Manu Tuilagi retired with a shoulder injury, but as this brought North on to the field, it was almost a blessing in disguise. North did as much as anyone to tilt the contest the Lions' way, repeatedly cutting loose in open field with his trademark runs.
North almost created a try for Farrell after a smart short-side snipe from the impressive scrum-half Ben Youngs – the goal-kicker lost the ball at the line as he was clattered by Anthony Fainga'a – but the Lions still profited from the ensuing five-metre scrum, with Youngs pickpocketing the Reds No 8 Jake Schatz, perhaps from an offside position, and touching down. Farrell's conversion and subsequent penalty gave the tourists a 16-7 interval lead. Ten minutes after the restart, the young Saracen was on the money again, punishing the home flanker Eddie Quirk for failing to roll away in the tackle.
In a game as tight as this, a 12-point advantage might have been seen as decisive, but when the Reds conjured a second try pretty much out of the blue, the Lions had their sense of reality restored. Nick Frisby, the Reds scrum-half, freed Rod Davies down the right wing with a long pass and was quick enough to take the return and beat Hogg's tackle en route to the line. Happily for the tourists, Mike Harris fluffed the simplest of conversions, leaving Farrell to have the final say with a fifth penalty in the 77th minute.
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 (France).
Quade Cooper: Captain's log
Wallaby coach Robbie Deans may be more likely to pick Jilly Cooper at fly-half for the first Test but Queensland's Quade is fit, brave and always watchable.
0min: Cooper leads Queensland out as captain for first time
1: Flat pass gives Luke Morahan first of many dangerous runs
2: Taps a midfield penalty and runs
15: Daring catch-and-chip in one movement, but lost possession
20: Bungled no-look pass almost gifts Lions a try
25: Poor penalty fails to find touch
32: Misses fairly straightforward penalty goal-kick
37: Denies Sam Warburton a try by getting leg under Lions captain
41: Deft, accurate cross-kick to Morahan
45: Snazzy out-the-back pass
52: Forward pass to Mike Harris blows an attack
60: Stabbed cross-kick just off target
62: Taps instead of drop-out then a good downfield kick for territory
64: Quick line-out leads to Nick Frisby try
65: Cedes conversion to Harris – who misses
68: Tries hitch-kick but Jonathan Davies has his number
74: Forward pass two metres from own goal-line and punches post protector in frustration.