Western Force 17 British & Irish Lions 69 match report: Aussies are taking cash and liberties with Lions, says Warren Gatland
The Lions were leaving Western Australia today in a conflicted state of mind: a small part of them wished it could always be like this – a nine-try gallop on fast going, supported by a sublime goalkicking performance of the kind delivered by the Welsh full-back Leigh Halfpenny – while a larger part craved a wholly different kind of experience more relevant to the forthcoming Test series with the Wallabies, who do not always concede nine tries in a season.
They were also grappling with the first serious setback of the trip after Cian Healy, the Irish loose-head prop, suffered a nasty ankle injury in a tackle by the flanker Angus Cottrell shortly before the interval and was then cited for allegedly biting scrum-half Brett Sheehan. If the disciplinarians do not end the Leinster forward's tour – his case was due to be heard today – damaged ligaments almost certainly will.
One way or another, then, the head coach Warren Gatland (below) was just about as far away from ecstatic as a man with a 52-point victory in the bank could possibly be. He had wanted this to be a full-on scrap with full-strength Super 15 opposition, not an Indian Ocean jolly against an under-strength side armed with the back-division equivalent of a peashooter. And as he made clear afterwards, he did not buy the Force's argument that fixture scheduling problems were at the heart of the matter.
"I'm sure it will be a lot tougher when we play Queensland Reds this weekend," said Gatland sharply. "There is something special about a Lions tour and you have to embrace it. When you think of the amount of money this is going to generate for Australia rugby, they need to take it seriously." As the most popular estimates on the size of the windfall are somewhere in the region of £50m, it was difficult not to see his point.
For all that, there were reasons for Gatland to be cheerful, and Halfpenny was patently one of them. "I've had 100 per cent returns in the past, but I don't think I've kicked as many as that," said the Cardiff Blues man after landing nine conversions and two penalties in a wondrous expression of his difficult art. Might the Wallabies expect something similar when the major business begins in Brisbane a fortnight on Saturday? "I hope so," he replied. "If selected."
It is one of the ironies of rugby union that more often than not the most breathtaking tries ask the most of the marksman expected to maximise them. There were some eye-catching scores here: captain Brian O'Driscoll's predatory finish after a sweet exchange of passes with the wing George North; Jamie Heaslip's touchdown direct from an exquisite long pass from Jonathan Sexton; Mako Vunipola's demolition-derby finish midway through the third quarter. Each of them was completed wide out, forcing Halfpenny into a series of wickedly awkward acute-angled shots. He did not look like missing. Not once.
This was deeply reassuring for Gatland, who knows his Lions history and is fully aware how many series are decided by the boot. Equally reassuring was the form of some of his key backs. O'Driscoll's close-quarter footwork and combative breakdown work at outside centre were a joy to behold, as was North's straight-line power on the left wing. When these two were set free by the ever-inventive Sexton, the callow Western Force threequarters could not begin to find an answer.
Unfortunately, the story up front was rather different. While Michael Foley, the World Cup-winning Wallaby hooker and former Bath coach now running the Force, fielded a pack significantly fitter for purpose than the limp combination outside, most observers still expected the Lions to dominate at the set piece. As it turned out, a home front row featuring only one player with Super 15 experience worthy of the name was able to operate in a degree of comfort.
In addition, there were issues at the lineout, where the Irish hooker Rory Best committed the cardinal sin of overthrowing the ball and bringing the Force back-rowers into the equation on more than one occasion. Matt Hodgson, the captain of the Australian province and just about their most effective player, had himself a party.
Two close-range tries were conceded by the tourists, the first to the Wallaby No 8 Richard Brown and the second to Lachlan McCaffrey, who replaced the busy Cottrell and played an enthusiastic part in his side's strong performance at the breakdown. When you throw in the fact that Alun Wyn Jones, the Lions lock, was sent to the sin bin late in the game for a ruck offence, it was no great surprise when Gatland muttered darkly about "things we need to work on".
Despite the handsome scoreline, the jury remains out on O'Driscoll's newly-forged midfield partnership with Manu Tuilagi, whose rumbustious charges late in the game could not completely disguise the lack of a footballer's imagination when it came to the distribution duties – a pretty important part of the inside centre's job, all things considered. Still, the great Irish centre thought things went reasonably well, for a first effort. "It wasn't flawless, but we tried to read one another and play off each other," he remarked.
So it was that the Lions bade farewell to the largest state in this vast country for another 12 years. At least. They have been here five times now and never been adequately tested – their aggregate score in Perth now stands at 360-33. Scheduling issues may well have played a part in the way this Western Force team was constructed, whatever Gatland suggested to the contrary, but at some point, surely to goodness, someone must tell these people to put up or shut up. There are only so many lopsided contests a 35,000 crowd will countenance.
Lions or lambs
The players who helped or hurt their chances of Test selection:
Leigh Halfpenny Wilkinson-esque dedication to perfecting his goalkicking paid full dividends. A superb effort.
George North Some say he has not been up to much recently. Tell that to the Western Force backs.
Jamie Heaslip His performance, spiced with lung-bursting gallops in open field, matched that of his rival Toby Faletau in Hong Kong.
Conor Murray Often dismissed as a "poor man's Mike Phillips", he did little to lose that reputation.
Rory Best Poor line-out throwing has been his weakness and there were some damaging examples.
Ian Evans An outstanding Six Nations performer, the Welsh lock was just a little quiet against the feisty members of the Western Force.
Western Force Tries R Brown, McCaffrey; Conversions Sheehan 2; Penalty Sheehan.
British & Irish Lions Tries O'Driscoll 2, Sexton, Croft, Heaslip, Vunipola, Bowie, Farrell, Parling; Conversions Halfpenny 9; Penalties Halfpenny 2.
Western Force S Christie; D Haylett-Petty (J Rasolea, 71), E Stubbs, C Tuatara-Morrison, C Brown; S Norton-Knight, B Sheehan (A Mathewson, 71); S Manu (T Metcher, 77), J Hilterbrand (H Roach, 78), S Ma'afu (S Kolo, 49), T Lynn (B Matwijow, 65), P Battye, A Cottrell (L McCaffrey, 52), M Hodgson (capt), R Brown (N Haining, 61).
British & Irish Lions L Halfpenny; T Bowe (S Maitland, 76), B O'Driscoll (capt), M Tuilagi, G North; J Sexton (O Farrell, 66), C Murray (B Youngs, 66); C Healy (M Vunipola, 37), R Best (T Youngs, 59), D Cole (M Stevens, 68), A Wyn Jones, I Evans (G Parling, 59), T Croft (T Faletau, 71), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Referee G Jackson (New Zealand).
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