By Ian Ransom
The ACT Brumbies, shorn of the heart of their first-choice team, soaked up enormous pressure to secure a famous 14-12 victory over a ragged British and Irish Lions side in Canberra on Tuesday and hand the tourists their first defeat.
Bullocking centre Tevita Kuridrani scored the sole try in the first half and fullback Jesse Mogg slotted three penalties for the hosts who held on grimly as the Lions roared back late in the second half in front of more than 21,000 frenzied fans at Canberra Stadium.
While the proud Brumbies players celebrated an historic win over what was effectively a Lions second team, the tourists’ management will have to act quickly to lift spirits ahead of Saturday’s first test against Australia in Brisbane.
“Full credit to the Brumbies, they frustrated us. It was a tough day at the office,” a sombre Lions coach Warren Gatland told reporters after his makeshift team were humbled on a field made sodden by a hail-storm in the leadup.
“I think it’s just part of being on tour, isn’t it?
“You get a bit of a knock, you take your disappointment and in the end it’s how you respond to it, how this group of players responds to it for the weekend. It’s just getting back on the horse again.”
With a hastily-assembled backline stitched together by flown-in replacements, the Lions trailed 8-3 at the break after putting in their worst first half of the tour with a raft of botched lineouts and handling errors.
Although bullied at the breakdown throughout an attritional contest punctuated by high-kicked bombs, the Lions improved after the break, with replacement flyhalf Owen Farrell underlining his quality by kicking his side to within two points with nine minutes to play.
But the two-time Super Rugby champions held on to snap their opponents’ run of five straight wins and consign them to their first non-test tour match loss since being defeated by the New Zealand Maori in 2005.
Brumbies coach Jake White hailed the win as on par with his 2007 World Cup triumph as coach of South Africa.
“It’s a massive result,” said White, who has turned the previously struggling franchise into Australia’s top Super Rugby side in less than two seasons.
“We got together 18 months ago and no one would have ever dreamt that we would have not only achieved Super Rugby-wise what we have but to get a win against the Lions just doesn’t happen.
“We’re really mindful of the fact that this is as big as it gets for any boy who’s played at this level.”
While none of the Lions starting 15 are likely to be considered for selection on Saturday, Gatland may be clearer about which players to leave on the sidelines.
Irish hooker Rory Best had a forgettable night as captain, reprising his Six Nations troubles at the setpiece with a rash of poor lineout throws to squander possession.
Emergency flyhalf Stuart Hogg also appeared out of his depth at times and also banged two penalty kicks against a post before Farrell relieved him in the second half. Debutant winger Christian Wade, hurriedly flown in from Argentina having made his England debut last week, also struggled, fumbling a number of early balls.
The Brumbies, however, were switched on from the start and despite boasting only 28 caps to the nearly 600 of their opponents, put in a brave performance.
Former Wales winger Shane Williams, in for a one-match cameo after flying in from Japan, was denied a dream return as he was dragged into touch just shy of the line after three minutes.
Kuridrani then danced around Wade and fullback Rob Kearney on the left wing to score in the fifth minute, signalling the start of a torrid first half for the Lions. A Mogg penalty made it 8-0 before Hogg finally put them on the board with a penalty just before the whistle.
Mogg slotted two further penalties to put the Brumbies up 14-leashed a rash of substitutions.
With reserve scrumhalf Conor Murray and Farrell directing traffic, the Lions played with renewed purpose and quickly capitalised with two Farrell penalties to reduce the lead to two points with nine minutes to go.
However, the Brumbies dug deep into a vast reservoir of grit and soaked up the final minutes with a determined pick-and-go defence.
“I think the forwards should stand up and take a lot of the heat,” Best said.
“We were very confident and we just didn’t turn up tonight. We let our standards drop tonight. We didn’t want to lose the momentum that we’ve gained on this tour.”