Australia sent the three-match rugby series against the British and Irish Lions into a deciding match by fighting back to win the second game 16-15.
Adam Ashley-Cooper scored the only try with six minutes left at Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium last night, which fellow center Christian Leali’ifano converted to put the Wallabies a point ahead. Leigh Halfpenny booted five penalties for the Lions, though missed a three-point attempt with the last kick of the game that would have given the combined team an unbeatable 2-0 lead and its first series victory since 1997.
“All bets are off,” Australia captain James Horwill said in a news conference. “It’s now one game to win it. It’s like a grand final, so you don’t worry about what’s happened before.”
The third Test is July 6 in Sydney, where Australia clinched a 2-1 victory when the teams last met in 2001 after also rebounding from losing the opener with a victory in Melbourne. The Lions, who tour every four years, haven’t won a series since a 2-1 triumph in South Africa 16 years ago.
After defeating the Springboks, the Lions lost 2-1 to Australia, were swept 3-0 in New Zealand and were beaten 2-1 by the South Africans in 2009.
As happened in the Lions’ 23-21 victory in Brisbane last week, when Kurtley Beale missed a last-minute penalty that would have won it for the Wallabies, the outcome hinged on the final kick. Halfpenny’s effort from over 50 meters fell short.
“I’ve seen him kick them from there before,” Lions coach Warren Gatland said of Halfpenny’s miss. “He just didn’t strike that one well enough, a chance to be a hero in that moment, unfortunately he hasn’t hit it quite as well as he’s capable of doing.”
In front of a crowd of 56,771, a record for a sports event at Etihad Stadium, the Lions took a 15-9 lead into the final six minutes of a game dominated by defense and riddled with errors as the teams combined for a total of 31 turnovers. While Australia made four clean breaks, the Lions didn’t manage any.
The tourists led 12-9 at the half on four penalties from Halfpenny, who also struck the crossbar with a third-minute effort, even after struggling to create a solid platform at the set-piece scrums and lineouts. Loosehead prop Mako Vunipola, whom the Wallabies had identified as a potential weakness in the leadup, was twice penalized for scrum infringements.
Leali’ifano, who lasted less than a minute in his Test debut in Brisbane last week before getting knocked out, slotted three kicks for Australia before the break.
The start of the second half was played at frantic pace and both teams continued to commit handling errors and infringe at the breakdown, although it took 23 minutes for the scoreboard to change.
Wales winger George North, who galloped for a 60-meter (55-yard) try in the first Test, drove back Israel Folau in a tackle with an hour gone. From the next scrum, the Lions sent the Wallabies back-pedaling to win a penalty and Halfpenny sent it through the posts to increase the lead to 15-9.
The touring team lost captain Sam Warburton to a hamstring injury with 14 minutes remaining and Brian O’Driscoll, playing on his fourth Lions tour, took over as skipper.
The Lions, who will spend four days in Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast rather then traveling straight to Sydney, said today that Warburton is staying in Melbourne to have a scan and will rejoin the squad tomorrow.
After Australia was awarded a penalty with eight minutes remaining, home captain James Horwill opted for a scrum instead of taking a kick from in front of the posts. The decision to keep the Lions under pressure in their own 22 paid off two minutes later.
With scrum-half Will Genia, who was named the man-of-the-match, prompting the attacks against a tiring defense, the Wallabies created space out wide for Ashley-Cooper to crash over. Leali’ifano maintained his composure to convert.
“We just knew that we had to get over the stripe,” added Horwill, who will miss the decider if he’s banned for stamping in the opener at a second disciplinary hearing tomorrow. “We were down by six. I felt that we had to build pressure and I felt that was a time to take that opportunity.”
Following a succession of surges upfield after the final hooter, referee Craig Joubert awarded the Lions a penalty just inside their half and Halfpenny’s attempt to clinch a series victory fell short of the posts. The Welsh full-back has missed just four of his 36 attempts at goal on the Lions 10-match tour.
With three points separating the teams in the first two games, both captains and coaches said they are expecting another close match in Sydney.
“It’s going to go down to the wire in the third Test as well,” Warburton said. “Next week is like a cup final, we forget about the last couple of weeks.”