The British and Irish Lions moved to within one win of their first rugby series victory in 16 years by beating Australia 23-21 as Kurtley Beale missed a last-minute penalty that would have won the opener for the Wallabies.
Welsh wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert ran in tries for the Lions at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium last night, while Leigh Halfpenny kicked 13 points. Israel Folau touched down twice on debut for Australia, for whom James O’Connor and Beale added the other points. Beale slipped as he attempted to snatch victory with seconds remaining, sending his kick low and wide.
“That was way too close for comfort,” Lions captain Sam Warburton said in a televised interview. “It’s out of your control when there’s a kick to the other team in the last minute. There’s massive delight to get the first win and get some momentum, and to get the ball rolling. We’ll look forward to next week now.”
The combined team from the U.K. and Ireland haven’t won a series since a 2-1 triumph in South Africa in 1997. The Lions led Australia 1-0 when the teams last met in 2001 before the Wallabies rallied for a 2-1 victory. The second Test is June 29 in Melbourne with the finale a week later in Sydney.
Australia, which had three backline players stretchered off injured and finished the game with a forward playing in the backs and replacement scrum-half Nick Phipps on the wing, missed a total of four penalties and one conversion. As well as his last-minute miss, Beale also pushed an effort wide with six minutes left that would have put the Wallabies a point ahead.
“The boys under very trying circumstances did well,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said. “To work their way into a position where they could have won the game was a good effort. We didn’t get there, so we go to Melbourne needing to win.”
The Lions had entered the first match of the series four days after losing their 100 percent tour record with a 14-12 loss to the ACT Brumbies in Canberra. They face the Melbourne Rebels on June 25 before wrapping up their 10-match trip with back-to-back Tests against Australia.
The home team had two chances to take the lead in the first seven minutes last night after Ireland center Brian O’Driscoll was twice penalized for breakdown infringements. O’Connor, assuming goal-kicking duties after debutant Christian Leali’ifano got knocked out in the first minute when making a tackle, missed with both attempts.
With the Lions deep in Australian territory after the referee played a penalty advantage, they gave away a penalty of their own by failing to release the ball. From the resulting penalty, Australia scrum-half Will Genia took a quick tap inside his own 22 and ran 40 meters before kicking the ball ahead for Folau to score. O’Connor converted to make it 7-0.
Halfpenny made it 7-3 with a penalty before North returned the ball 60 meters off Berrick Barnes’s high kick, breaking through two tackles on a run to the corner. Halfpenny added the extras from near the touchline and then kicked another penalty to put the Lions 13-7 up after North had a try disallowed by the television match official. Replays showed that Folau had done enough to prevent North from touching down cleanly.
Folau, who was picked on the right wing after playing 14 Super Rugby games at full-back since joining the New South Wales Waratahs in December following stints in rugby league and Australian Rules football, was again at the center of the action with six minutes of the first half remaining. He took a pass from fellow Test debutant Ben Mowen 30 meters out, stepped inside Lions fly-half Jonny Sexton, held off prop Alex Corbisiero and ran around Halfpenny to score out wide. O’Connor missed the conversion.
Barnes became the second Wallabies back to leave the game just before half time after colliding with Folau when under pressure from North. Halfpenny had a chance to put the Lions 16-12 up on the stroke of half time but sliced wide.
Australia lost its third back six minutes after the break when inside center Pat McCabe, an earlier replacement for Leali’ifano, injured his neck. With Deans having used all of his backline reserves, flanker Liam Gill came on at open-side and Michael Hooper switched into the centers.
Cuthbert then sliced through O’Connor and Hooper to go over for the Lions second try. O’Connor and Beale, who had replaced Barnes, booted penalties to make it 20-18 before Halfpenny and Beale traded kicks to keep the deficit at two points.
After pushing a 74th-minute effort to the right of the posts, Beale had a chance to win it after the Lions’ scrum collapsed. He slipped as he went to strike the ball and his 46-meter effort missed the target before going dead.
“We knew it was going to be tight, there’s not a lot of difference between the two sides,” said Lions coach Warren Gatland. “Like a sparring match, the teams were finding out a bit about each other in the first Test. Both teams will get better after that hit out. It wasn’t the prettiest performance, but it was the victory we deserved.”
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