The expert view: Referee was wrong, but it made Lions opening Test a real thriller

 

What a win for the Lions. It was massive, but it was a game of incredibly fine margins. So much of the talk leading into yesterday's First Test surrounded the battle on the ground. The breakdown was indeed a huge part of the game, but not quite for the reasons we predicted. Referee Chris Pollock very quickly showed that he was not interested in the slow ball-producing jackal technique and, while many – including me – questioned his early penalising of Brian O'Driscoll after what appeared a textbook attempted steal, it set a definite and undisguised tone. Quick ball was the order of the day, and what followed was a scorcher of a spectacle. When the squad was announced, the only selection about which I wondered was Dan Lydiate on the replacements' bench. Not because he is not a wonderful player – he is – but because he is not a natural openside. Should Sam Warburton get hurt, who would compete at dirt level? Well, perhaps Warren Gatland did his homework and knew that the referee was not necessarily an advocate of the Neil Back school of rugby. Which is not to say that neither openside was effective over the course of the game but, as so often happens, one man's interpretation of one of the game's many crucial areas shaped the whole event, and it was fascinating to watch both sets of half-backs adjust, with Will Genia dominant. The scrummage, too, did not pan out as we hoped. In the first half the Lions dominated on occasion, but the Wallabies held out, used the odd early engagement to their advantage and, as the minutes ticked by and replacements appeared, closed the gap right up, almost squeezing Dan Cole and Mako Vunipola out of the game. How clever. How Australian.

Aussies take a kicking

Christian Leali'ifano's first-minute injury was horrid to watch, but the Aussies' woes did not end there. Berrick Barnes also copped a whack and had to make way. Kurtley Beale is no mean replacement, but Barnes's departure left his side in trouble from the kicking tee. James O'Connor had a rough day and Beale, electric in attack, failed to land the points that would have sealed victory once he took over. The Lions will wake up this morning feeling battered and bruised, but Warren Gatland's injury list will look fantastic when compared with Robbie Deans's after Pat McCabe, became the third Wallaby carried off. We all hope that injuries will not affect the big games, but flanker Michael Hooper having to step away from the coalface and into what must have seemed a stunningly fast-moving midfield certainly makes things tough. But none of that matters once the whistle blows. It's about doing enough, and the Lions did the job.

Why no pressure on Lions' line-out?

The line-out is the area that shocked me the most. Yes, Lions hooker Tom Youngs (right) has been throwing nicely on this trip, but the tourists' line-out as a whole has not been working well. In fact, one might argue that it lost them the game when they went down 14-12 against the ACT Brumbies in Canberra last Tuesday. So why did it take Australia fully half an hour to compete with gusto? Do not get me wrong, as an Englishman I was applauding their repeated "Mr Freeze" impressions during that first 30 minutes, but I was staggered nonetheless at what appeared to be a lack of focus on an area that has, over the years, been so valuable to Australian rugby.

Genius Genia pips Sexton

As the Lions looked to be taking the set-piece by the scruff of the neck, and as an aggressively definite interpretation of what constituted an acceptable breakdown was imposed via Pollock's whistle, it was deeply intriguing to observe who managed the game better. Johnny Sexton showed a few flashes of brilliance, not least sending Alex Cuthbert through the middle to score just seconds after Australia were forced to stick a flanker in the back line, but Will Genia was on a different planet. Ultimately it was not enough, but my goodness he is a clear thinker under pressure. If ever there was a man to target in the next game…

Bring back Ben

The only change I would make for next week would be to include Ben Youngs at scrum-half from the start. Mike Phillips just did not fire yesterday. His kicking was too often long and seemingly – when watching potential chasers – unannounced. And watching him jog after the galloping Genia made for painful viewing.

My prediction Another Lions win, this time with more power.

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