It was a reverse that hadn't seemed likely following three huge wins in their opening three fixtures but the Lions were second best for much of the 80 minutes at the North Power Stadium on the country's Central Coast.
A poor first half and a shocking penalty count proved to be the Lions' downfall as a late comeback couldn't prevent a first non-international defeat in Australia since 1971.
Opposition fly-half Manny Edmonds kicked a record-breaking seven penalties and a conversion for a personal tally of 23 points, and while the Lions outscored their hosts by three tries to one, they could have few complaints about the nature of the result.
A stirring final half hour showed just what the Lions were capable of but a below-par opening 50 simply left them with far, far too much to do.
Australia A 28 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 25
Scorers: Australia A: Try - Staniforth; Con - Edmonds; Pens - Edmonds 7; Lions: Tries - Taylor, Perry, Robinson; Cons - Dawson 2; Pens - Jenkins 2
SETTING THE SCENE
The Lions arrived in Gosford in bouyant mood having racked up 241 points and conceded just 24 in their first three games together. Huge wins over Western Australia and a Queensland President's XV had set the Lions on the way but the victory over an impressive-looking Queensland Reds outfit had given the clearest indication that the tourists really meant business.
That 42-8 hammering of the southern hemisphere's fourth-ranked club side had made the Australian public sit up and take notice after most had written off the Lions as no hopers prior to departure. All eyes were on game four as a result with critics looking for a reason to suggest the nature of the victory over the Reds was a fluke rather than a permanent feature of these particular crusaders.
The Lions had been lauded for their opening and adventurous approach early on in the tour but the non-believers weren't convinced they would be able to replicate that style of play against a side that would present the biggest challenge outside of the Test series. Unfortunately for the Lions, those doubters would be proved right, at least for the first hour or so.
The Lions had butchered the Queensland Reds in their previous outing
Whereas the team that had hammered the Reds three days earlier would go on to form the bulk of the Test squad, only three of the side that started in Gosford would earn the same honour for the opening rubber against the Wallabies.
In short, this may have been Australia's second string but it was pretty much the same for the Lions too as they looked to use their entire party in the build up to the biggest games of the tour.
Only full back Matt Perry, wing Jason Robinson and No8 Scott Quinnell would be Henry's first-choice picks in Brisbane 11 days down the line, although Mike Catt and Lawrence Dallaglio would have been in contention had injury not ended their involvement.
Some squad members in the side to face Australia A flattered to deceive on tour, with the likes of Ben Cohen, Scott Murray, Neil Jenkins, Robin McBryde and Malcolm O'Kelly failing to live up to expectation Down Under, while others, such as Austin Healey, Will Greenwood and Dai Young suffered simply because of injury or the impressive form of their Test rivals.
But just because the majority of these men weren't required from the very off in the Test series, this was by no means a Mickey Mouse Lions outfit. The mid-week and Test sides may have been becoming easier to distinguish at this stage but this particular team was still packed with quality.
Along with the injured Dan Luger, Cohen had arguably been the form wing prior to the tour, while Greenwood had already shown his worth in the first two games in Australia in which he had been the Lions' primary playmaker. Healey would go on to score a crucial try double against ACT and would have featured in the Test series, despite his public grumblings about coaching standards, were it not for a training ground injury, while the unfortunate Catt had been favourite for a Test spot only to fail to fully recover from back and calf injuries that had seen him have no involvement up until this point.
Austin Healey started at scrum-half for the Lions
Elsewhere in the backs, Robinson was fast becoming one of the most talked-about talents on tour following his five debut tries against the President's XV and Perry was proving a far more solid feature in the No15 shirt than Bath and England team-mate Iain Balshaw.
In the pack, Henry opted for experience in his front row where hooker McBryde was joined by veterans Young and Jason Leonard. Both men were on their third and final Lions adventures, with the former having toured in 1989 and 1997 and the latter in '97 and '93.
Murray and O'Kelly would prove to be numbers four and five in terms of second row rankings rather than just the figures on the back of their shirts but openside flanker Martyn Williams did earn a spot among the replacements for the second and third internationals in Melbourne and Sydney respectively.
Like Catt, Dallaglio had been carrying an injury when he arrived in Australia and wouldn't finish the tour. The former England skipper featured just once more against the Waratahs before flying home disappointed before the series had even begun.
The final member of the back row, Llanelli favourite Quinnell, had been in Dallaglio's shoes in South Africa four years earlier when a hernia had brought his tour to a painful end. The Welsh dual code star could have continued to press his claims in '97 but withdrew his services after deciding that he couldn't give 100 per cent as the Test series beckoned.
Quinnell then vowed to return from rugby league in time for a second Lions outing in order to gain the Test cap he had missed out on first time around. He achieved that personal landmark in some style, scoring in the stunning first-Test win at the Gabba, and his involvement against Australia A showed that Henry hadn't simply picked a mid-week side for whom the chances of a Test spot were fading fast.
Scott Quinnell was one of just three men who would also start the first Test
As for Australia A, the Lions' opponents were packed with players who had either already represented the Wallabies or would go on to do so in the future.
Coached by Eddie Jones, the man who would guide the Wallabies to a World Cup Final in 2003 and help the Springboks to William Webb Ellis success in 2007, Australia A included 14 current full internationals.
In total, Jones could call on 18 men who would wear the Wallaby Green and Gold at some point in their careers, with all bar one of his starting XV a current or future international. Only full back Richard Graham failed to win a cap at senior level, while seven of the squad would feature in the three-match Test series against the Lions.
As well as being dominated by Wallabies rather than just youngsters with some potential, Australia A also included a host of players who would later ply their trade in Britain and Ireland. 10 of the matchday 22 would go on to play or coach in this part of the world, with nine of those named in the starting side at the North Power Stadium.
Led by openside flanker Phil Waugh, Australia's second-best XV were a side to be reckoned with. Waugh was in the early stages of his career in 2001but he would go on to win 79 caps for the Wallabies. Only the presence of the legendary George Smith prevented him from topping the century mark, with most seasoned observers believing he would have been even more of a Test regular had he been affiliated to virtually any other nation. The Waratahs favourite was vice captain of the 2003 World Cup squad, captained his Super Rugby side on close to 60 occasions and won the John Eales Medal for the Wallaby Player of the Year two seasons after the Lions left for home.
Waugh was joined in the back row by Jim Williams and David Lyons, both of whom would head overseas later on. Williams became a legendary figure with Munster after moving to Ireland a year after the Lions waved goodbye to Australia. The affable blindside cum No8spent six years being worshipped by the Red Army as he added two Heineken Cup trophies to his 1999 World Cup winners medal, the first as a player and the second as a coach.
Williams could achieve an impressive double in 2013 as he looks set to pit his wits against the Lions once again. The 42-year-old, who spent a season with West Hartlepool back in 1994/95, is currently assistant coach to Robbie Deans with the Wallabies and is expected to remain in that role now that Deans has agreed to extend his own contract until after the Lions tour.
Jim Williams commands huge respect in Ireland as well as Australia
Like Williams, Lyons has first-hand knowledge of a number of players who have either already featured for the Lions or who could do so in 2013. Now with Stade Francais, Lyons spent three years at the Scarlets playing alongside the likes of veterans Stephen Jones and Matthew Rees and up and coming stars such as George North, Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams. As for his own international career, Lyons won 44 caps, succeeded Waugh as the John Eales Medal holder and was a replacement for all three Tests against the Lions.
The second row of the Australia A side featured a World Cup winner and, although few would have guessed it at the time, one of the stars of the Lions series.
Tom Bowman picked up 16 caps and would prove to be a thorn in the Lions' side in this particular encounter but it was his as then uncapped partner in the boiler house who would cause the tourists the biggest problems later on in the tour.
Whereas Bowman's last Test appearance came two years before the Lions arrived, Justin Harrison would only make his Test debut in the third and final clash with the Lions on July 14. His well-publicized spat with Austin Healy in the encounter with ACT brought plenty of negative headlines for the Lions but it was his last-gasp leap to beat Martin Johnson to a crucial lineout in Sydney that would do the most damage.
With the Lions chasing the converted try that would secure them a series victory, Keith Wood threw in at a lineout just metres from the Wallaby line as Johnson and co got set to drive onwards towards glory. With possession the Lions would have had their fate in their own hands but Harrison nicked the ball from under Johnson's nose and the chance was gone. The Wallabies were home and dry thanks in no small part to player who, at the time, was largely unknown in Britain or Ireland although he would later represent Ulster and Bath, earning a reputation as a fearsome competitor but sullying that view by becoming embroiled in cocaine use during his time in England.
Hooker Brendan Cannon beat Harrison to the achievement of making his Test bow against the Lions when he came on as a replacement in the second international in Melbourne. Cannon would go on to win 42 caps, 41 more than fellow front rower Cameron Blades who made his solitary Wallaby appearance in 1997.
The final member of the starting pack was another to spend time at Ulster, with Rod Moore residing at Ravenhill for two-and-a-half seasons before heading to Italy with Calvisano. Moore won 14 caps for the Wallabies and played a key role in the series win over the Lions, starting both the second and third Tests as the Aussies won 35-14 and 29-23 to seal the series.
As for the backline, Nathan Grey was the most significant inclusion as far as the Test series was concerned. Having replaced Tim Horan during the '99 World Cup Final win over France, Grey started all three internationals against the Lions. Grey was a solidifying presence in a Wallaby midfield that fought hard to contain Brian O'Driscoll and co for the much of the final two Tests but he is most often remembered for the controversial 'elbow to face' clash with Richard Hill which brought the Lions flanker's tour to a premature end in the latter stages of the first-half of the second rubber. Now a skills and defence coach with Melbourne Rebels, Grey could relive his Lions rivalry in 2013.
Nathan Grey started all three Tests against the Lions
Scrum-half Chris Whitaker joined Grey in playing a part against the Lions' first XV as he was named on the bench for each international. Whitaker won 31 caps between 1998 and 2005 despite the presence of legendary Test centurion George Gregan. A World Cup winner, Whitaker was vice captain of Leinster's Heineken Cup winning side in 2009 and is now team manager of Stade Francais.
Like Whitaker, Williams, Harrison and Moore, wing Mark Bartholomeusz was another of this Australia A side to spend time in Ireland where he wore Ulster colours. Bartholomeusz also figured for Saracens but his Test career was shortlived as he played just two and a half minutes on his only senior international appearance.
Fellow wing Scott Staniforth also experienced club rugby in England thanks to a successful spell with London Irish where he was named the Club's Player of the Year in 2005. Never a regular but always on the fringes of selection and a dependable deputy, Staniforth won 12 caps across a decade of international rugby between 1998 and 2008.
Centre Graeme Bond was yet another to head to the UK or Ireland when he signed for Sale Sharks the season after the Lions departed. Bond, who is the uncle of current Wallaby utility back Adam Ashley-Cooper, picked up a handful of caps but saw his career cut short through a neck injury in 2004.
Fly-half Edmonds won just the three caps during his time in his homeland but he forged a hugely successful career in France. Edmonds regularly starred for Perpignan in the Top 14 and Heineken Cup, enjoying two spells at the Catalans Club and retiring at the end of last season. Somewhat ironically, he has been replaced at Perpignan by 2009 Lion James Hook.
As for the only member of the starting side not to win full Test honours, Graham's' CV is hardly a disappointing read regardless. The solitary Queenslander in the Australia A side, Graham was a star on the international Sevens circuit, captaining his country for four years in the shortened version of the game. He went on to spend four seasons as assistant coach at Bath, followed by a stint at Saracens and a 15-month spell as skills coach for the Wallabies from June 2009 to September 2010. He is currently head coach of the Western Force and could therefore pit his wits against the Lions for a second time in 2013.
On the bench, four more players would win senior caps, with James Holbeck's final Test being the narrow triumph over the Lions in the last game of the 2011 tour.
Prop Patricio Noriega won 25 caps for Argentina and 24 for Australia and was viewed by many as one of the leading front row forwards at the turn of the Millennium. Injury and a lack of game time had prevented him from putting himself into contention for the Test series against the Lions but he did go on to play nine of the Wallabies' 10 Tests the year after. Noriega also holds the remarkable record of playing against the Lions for three different teams on one tour after he packed down for Western Australia and New South Wales Waratahs as well as the A side.
Scrum-half Sam Payne claimed seven caps, the last of which came in 1997, while 20-year-old Julian Huxley would go one better by winning eight. Huxley is currently one of Australia's sporting success stories after having a benign brain tumour removed in 2008. Huxley was forced out of the game for two years but has since made a remarkable recovery and is now in his second season with the Rebels.
Fellow replacements Tom Murphy, Jonno West and Peter Ryan were all uncapped but Ryan does hold a place in the history books as the only player to win NRL and Super Rugby titles during his time in league and union. As current defence coach for the Reds, he too could face the next pride of Lions.
Australia A: Richard Graham (Queensland); Mark Bartholomeusz (ACT), Graeme Bond (ACT), Nathan Grey (New South Wales), Scott Staniforth (NSW), Manny Edmonds (NSW), Chris Whitaker (NSW), Cameron Blades (NSW), Brendan Cannon (NSW), Rod Moore (NSW), Tom Bowman (NSW), Justin Harrison (ACT), David Lyons (NSW), Phil Waugh (NSW) (captain), Jim Williams (ACT)
Replacements: Tom MurphY (ACT), Patricio Noriega (NSW), Jono West (NSW), Sam Payne (NSW), Julian Huxley (NSW), Peter Ryan (ACT), James Holbeck (ACT)
Lions: Matt Perry (Bath/England); Ben Cohen (Northampton/England), Will Greenwood (Harlequins/England), Mike Catt (Bath/England), Jason Robinson (Sale/England), Neil Jenkins (Cardiff/Wales), Austin Healey (Leicester/England); Jason Leonard (Harlequins/England), Robin McBryde (Llanelli/Wales), Dai Young (captain) (Cardiff/Wales), Scott Murray (Saracens/Scotland), Malcolm O'Kelly (Leinster/Ireland), Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps/England), Martyn Williams (Cardiff/Wales), Scott Quinnell (Llanelli/Wales)
Replacements: Darren Morris (Swansea/Wales), Gordon Bulloch (Glasgow/Scotland), Jeremy Davidson (London Irish/Ireland), Colin Charvis (Swansea/Wales), Matt Dawson (Northampton/England), Ronan O'Gara (Munster/Ireland), Mark Taylor (Swansea/Wales)
Referee: Paul Honiss (New Zealand)
The Lions left themselves with it all do it in the latter stages after a frustrating opening half. A lack of possession and territory cost the Lions dear, as did their poor discipline as Edmonds struck five first-half penalty goals.
The Lions trailed 15-6 at the break and that nine-point deficit could have been worse had it not been for a hugely committed defensive effort from the tourists.
Stuck in their own half for the much of the opening 40 minutes, the Lions struggled to get into their rhythm as the Australians dominated in the tight. Continuous transgressions at the breakdown would have been a major disappointment for Henry and captain Young as the Lions failed to adapt to the southern hemisphere interpretations of the laws at ruck time.
Manny Edmonds, pictured here for Perpignan, struck seven penalties in total
To make matters worse, the Lions lost Catt to a re-occurrence of his calf injury - a setback that would see his tour come to a premature end.
Jenkins did hand the Lions the lead when he made up for an earlier miss with a successful penalty but that was as good as it got as they never found themselves out in front again.
The Welshman added a second penalty to make the scores 6-apiece after Edmonds' first two strikes but three more kicks from the Aussie playmaker left the Lions more than a converted score behind at half time.
The Lions had bounced back in style with a superb second-half showing after disappointing performance in the first against the Queensland President's XV but there was to be no such turnaround against the Wallaby second string.
Instead, the Lions found themselves further behind after just 10 minutes of the second half as Staniforth claimed the game's opening try. Cohen's failure to stop Bond from stepping inside and into space created an opportunity which Staniforth grabbed with both hands to leave Lions 13 points adrift.
Edmonds' successful conversion stretched the gap to 15, forcing Henry to change his plans by introducing Matt Dawson into the fray in place of Jenkins. Dawson's appearance saw Healey switch from scrum-half to fly-half and the Leicester Lip spent the remaining half hour or so showcasing his talents as the Lions suddenly developed a far more impressive attacking threat.
Switching Healey to outside-half was a smart move
Henry's decision immediately paid dividends as Dawson's quick tap penalty handed Taylor a try that gave the Lions a sniff of victory just when they needed it most.
But the Aussies soon quelled the resistance as more indiscipline plagued a possible Lions comeback. Edmonds slotted two more kicks, with his seventh and final effort indicative of the Lions' shortcomings throughout the encounter. Dallaglio was the culprit on that occasion, with the Wasps flanker yellow carded for playing the ball on the floor according to Kiwi official Paul Honiss.
Lawrence Dallaglio saw yellow midway through the second half
That kick in the teeth could have seen the raising of the white flag in front of a partisan Australian crowd but the Lions showed the kind of fight that has always characterised the best of British and Irish as they came close to recording a memorable comeback.
A long pass from Healey to the hardworking and incisive Mark Taylor - another inspired substitution - saw the Swansea midfield man present Perry with a second Lions try that narrowed the gap once more and kept the Lions' hopes alive.
Robinson then claimed a third try of the half for Henry's men, with Dawson landing two of the three conversions to prompt a nervy ending for the home side. A fourth try would have won it for the Lions, while a penalty or drop goal would have handed them a draw, but it wasn't to be.
The Lions showed their class in the closing stages but the damage had already been done much earlier on. Facing some of the weaker opposition they had been confronted with earlier on in the tour, the Lions may have got away with their poor showing in the opening 50 minutes but against a group of guys desperate to convince the Wallaby selectors they should be involved in the Test series, such a lacklustre start was always going to leave them with a mountain to climb.
WHAT THEY SAID
Graham Henry (Lions coach)
"We always knew it was going to be a tough game, with a different environment and a difficult build up. But we've got no excuses - we should have been better than we were. We were a bit flat, we lacked pace, and there's no excuse for that.
"The penalty count against us was very high and we lacked discipline in a number of areas.
"We got better as the game went on and we did score three tries to one, but we had a very small percentage of possession and a very small percentage of territory. We struggled most of the game to get the ball and if you haven't got the ball, you can't win."
Lawrence Dallaglio (Lions back row)
"We made life difficult for ourselves. Credit to them with the way they played, particularly in the first half, but I think our lack of first-phase possession, and then handing the ball back to them on several occasions, really put us under enormous pressure. You can't play without the ball and that proved to be the case today.
"The forwards that went out there, we've got to hold our hands up and take the blame. We've been working hard in training but the basics let us down. If the basics let you down against quality opposition, you're going to find it hard to win a football match.
"There's no real substitute now for getting back on the training pitch and working extremely hard and picking ourselves up. On a tour like this, you don't want to have lows but hopefully the character that this squad shows will pull us through. We've got to make sure that's the last game we lose on tour.
"There is a genuine concern when the penalty count against you is so high but I don't think we can start pointing the finger at anyone other than ourselves. There's definitely a different interpretation this side of the equator than back home. We've got to wise up pretty quickly. It's not a question of blaming any of the referees, we've got to look at ourselves and look at what we're doing at the breakdown. The guys who played last week against Queensland managed to keep the penalty count pretty low - today the count was high and I'm as guilty as anyone with my sin binning.
"It's good to get 80 minutes of rugby but I have to say that, having worked incredibly hard to get this far and to get selected, I didn't have ideas of being part of a losing Lions team.
"This is where you need to stand up and be counted and I'm sure the character will come through. Whoever's handed the responsibility of playing on Saturday has to pick up the level of performance and I'm sure that will happen.
"There are a lot of good players in this squad. We've got to come together very quickly, we'll close ranks, we'll work hard and we'll come back."
The Lions fell just short as they tasted defeat for the first time on tour
The Lions in Gosford:
Prior to 2001, the Lions had never played in Gosford. Britain and Ireland's elite have graced far smaller venues throughout their 11 tours to Australia but Gosford had never previously been included on the fixture list.
The Central Coast city lies approximately 50 miles north of Sydney and is the third largest urban area in New South Wales. But despite a population of more than 150,000, Gosford had to sit back and watch as the two bigger cities in the state, Newcastle and Sydney, hosted a total of 44 fixtures between them before the Lions finally pitched up some 113 years after their first visit to Australia.
With Australia's Super Rugby franchises now having reached a high of five and professional Lions tours being cut to around 10 games, it looks unlikely that Gosford will ever hosts the Lions again.
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2001: Australia A 28 Lions 25