By Nick Mulvenney
AUSTRALIA’S Kurtley Beale slipped over and missed a dramatic last-minute penalty to hand the British and Irish Lions a thrilling 23-21 first Test victory at Lang Park on Saturday.
The Lions had led from the 26th minute when winger George North scored the first of their two tries but Israel Folau’s brace in a brilliant Test debut had kept the Wallabies in touch.
Beale, who had played little more than half an hour of senior rugby in the last four months as he battled alcohol problems, had come on as a replacement for one of three Wallabies backs who were taken off the pitch on a stretcher.
The 24-year-old was unable to steal the victory for the home side, however, losing his footing as he ran up to attempt a penalty from 46 metres with seconds remaining.
“It was way too close for comfort. The last 20 minutes was so hard, we really had to dig in,” Lions skipper Sam Warburton said in a pitchside interview. “Only half the job done.”
The Lions, roared on by at least half the stadium record 52,499 crowd, also had a try from winger Alex Cuthbert, while Leigh Halfpenny added 13 points with the boot to keep the tourists on course for a first series victory since 1997.
“We knew it was going to be tight,” said Lions coach Warren Gatland. “In all, not the prettiest performance but I think it was a victory we deserved.”
The winner of a first Lions Test nearly always takes the series but the home side will take heart from the fact that the exceptions have been in Australia, where the tourists rallied to win in 1989 and the Wallabies came back to triumph in 2001.
“It was very frustrating but I’m proud of the effort we put in,” said Australia coach Robbie Deans.
“It was a courageous performance that would stack up alongside any but it disappointing not to get the reward.”
As expected, the match was a bruising encounter from the off and Wallabies centre Christian Lealiifano’s Test debut was ended after less than a minute by a head injury sustained in tackling Jonathan Davies.
Lealiifano had been the nominated place kicker and when Lions centre Brian O’Driscoll was twice penalised at the breakdown and the Wallabies had the chance to open the scoring, O’Connor missed both penalties.
The Lions hit back with a huge shove to win a penalty at the second scrum and kicked for touch before running through around twenty phases deep inside the Wallabies half.
The Australians held firm through a penalty advantage and then won one of their own on their 22 metre line after 14 minutes, Genia taking a quick tap and setting off up the field.
The scrumhalf turned his opposite number Mike Phillips inside and out and kept going before just about getting the ball onto his foot for a wild grubber kick which Folau gathered to sprint across the line.
Halfpenny cut the deficit by three points 10 minutes later and North, a doubt for the match earlier in the week because of a hamstring strain, soon gave the tourists the lead.
Berrick Barnes launched an up-and-under and North swallowed it up, swerving past the tackle of O’Connor, storming through a huge gap in the defence before rounding Barnes and pulling away to score.
The Welshman nearly had a second try in the same corner three minutes later but Folau’s tackle just forced his elbow into touch before he could ground the ball. Halfpenny made no mistake with the consolation penalty to put the Lions 13-7 up.
If it was to be a battle between two powerful wingers, Folau was not done yet and two minutes later he had his brace.
Genia’s loop in the midfield gave Australia an extra man but when the ball found Folau on the wing, he apparently had nowhere to go.
In an echo of Jason Robinson’s try for the Lions in Brisbane in 2001, though, Folau’s step took him past Jonny Sexton, his power through the tackle of Halfpenny and the line opened up in front of him.
O’Connor missed the conversion – the Wallabies left 14 points on the kicking tee during the match – and to make matters worse, the hosts lost fullback Barnes to a head injury, allowing Beale to enter the fray.
His first duties were defensive as the Lions charged back into the Wallabies half with a break up the middle from prop Alex Corbisiero taking them within a couple of metres of the home side’s line.
The Wallabies infringed at the subsequent ruck but Halfpenny missed only his second placekick on the tour and the Lions had to be satisfied with a 13-12 halftime lead.
Seven minutes into the second half, the Australians lost a third back, Pat McCabe, to a neck injury forcing flanker Michael Hooper to move into the centres where he started his career.
His first contribution in the backline was a flailing tackle that missed Alex Cuthbert as the Lions winger burst through the midfield and beat two more defenders to touch down.
O’Connor and then Beale kicked penalties for the home side before Halfpenny slotted his third to give the Lions a 23-18 lead with 15 minutes to go.
Beale then added his second penalty, set up by his own break up the middle, but shanked a third with five minutes remaining to keep the Lions just ahead for the dramatic climax.
By Nick Mulvenney