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Lions lose nail biter

A week after Kurtley Beale missed with a last second kick to win the first Test for the Qantas Wallabies in Brisbane, Leigh Halfpenny was the man left ruing his luck after his match-winning effort from the half-way line fell short.

While nobody could blame the Welsh full back for missing from such long-range, it meant the series was levelled and the destination of the Tom Richards Trophy will be determined in Sydney next weekend.

If Beale had been the villain in Brisbane, the Wallabies’ hero in Melbourne was Christian Leali’ifano, who showed the Australian fans what they had been missing at the Suncorp Stadium a week earlier as he kicked four out of four kicks at goal to boot his side to a series equalling victory at a passion packed Etihad Stadium in Melbourne.

The Brumbies centre had been carried off after only a minute of his debut in Brisbane and could only sit and watch as James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale missed with 14 points worth of kicks in a game won by the Lions 23-21.

Leali’ifano quickly made up for those errors and his immaculate display, which included a high pressure conversion to regain the lead with three minutes to play. That wasn’t the end of the drama because the Lions earned that after-the-hooter penalty on half-way to give Halfpenny his shot for stardom.

The Lions got off to a flying start as they turned over Australia in their own half within the first minute and then Sam Warburton got over opposing skipper James Horwill at the breakdown to win a penalty after four minutes.

Up stepped Leigh Halfpenny but from 48 metres his kick at goal bounced back off the cross bar for only his third miss on tour. The Lions’ response was to kick two penalties down the left touchline and use they driving line-out to great effect and they drew another penalty out of the under pressure home forwards.

This time Halfpenny hit the mark and it was first blood to the Lions. The Wallabies had come into the game with an established goalkicker of their own in the fit again Christian Leali’ifano at centre and he was soon showing Robbie Deans what he had missed out on last weekend when he left the game on a stretcher after only one minute.

He landed his first two kicks in international rugby with consummate ease to boot the Wallabies ahead in the 24th minute with his second strike after the Lions had conceded a penalty at another scrum.

The scrum battle was once again a fascinating contest. The Wallabies picked up where they had left off late in the game in Brisbane by earning the early bragging rights, and penalty points, but Mako Vunipola and Adam Jones hit back strongly to earn two penalties within the space of four minutes that edged the tourists ahead, 9-6.

The defences were on top in the first half and there were no clean line-breaks from either side. The Lions kept a very close eye on Will Genia, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale and they managed to force a couple of errors out of O’Connor.

But with neither side able to get on top in another edge o the seat contest it was the battle of the boots that continued to dominate the evening. Leali’ifano punished Dan Lydiate for his early rush up in defence to level the scores four minutes before the break, but Halfpenny got one more chance before the half-time hooter sounded.

His high up and under out of his own half was brilliantly chased and re-gathered by George North. That good work enabled the Lions to spread the ball wide and Jamie Haslip carried well into the 22, where Ben Mowen conceded a penalty for holding on desperately in the tackle.

It was an almost carbon copy moment from the first Test, b ut this time Halfpenny stroked the ball perfectly from wide out on the right to give his side the lead going into the interval at 12-9.

The early exchanges at the start of the second half were certainly up a level in intensity from the first. The Wallabies looked to get the ball wide to introduce danger man Israel Folau, but the Lions defence stayed firm and Warburton continued to show his class at the breakdown forcing turnover penalties.

The Lions may still have had the lead but they were coming under increasing pressure as the home side threw everything at them to try to stay in the series. Yet every time the Lions looked under threat, the magnificent ‘Sea of Red’ roared them on to renewed efforts.

The only noise ringing around the Etihad Stadium, which recorded a stadium record crowd for a sporting event of 56,771, was from the Lions fans, who virtually turned it into a home game. The roar that greeted North lifting Folau onto his shoulder and charging forward with the ball almost lifted the roof.

Even so, there wasn’t another scoring opportunity in the game until 23 minutes after the re-start when the Lions won a decisive penalty at a scrum with an almighty shove. Up stepped halfpenny and over went an incredible kick from one metre inside the Wallabies’ half.

That gave the Lions a vital six point cushion and renewed impetus in a game of very small margins. As the pressure mounted, so the support got louder and louder, although the Lions had to go into the final 12 minutes without their captain when Warburton was helped off the field with what looked like an ankle injury. Sean O’Brien had already come on after 64 minutes to replace Jamie Heaslip and now Tom Croft replaced the captain.

A mistake in midfield by Jonathan Davies conceded possession and the Wallabies mounted the biggest attack of the game through Folau and then Steve Moore to get to within five metres of the Lions line. They won a penalty for offside, but instead of taking the easy three points they went for broke with a scrum.

It was a pivotal moment in the game and off a strong scrum they tried to bring Folau charging through the middle, but he lost the ball in the tackle. The Lions cleared to the wedge of their 22, but the Wallabies kept the pressure on and they finally earned their reward when Adam Ashley-Cooper charged over three-quarters of the way out on the right.

That gave Leali’ifano the chance to shoot for glory, and the lead, and the utility back kept his cool to slot over the vital conversion. That left the Lions with three minutes to try to hit back. They did well to earn that final penalty, but they will have to pull out all the stops in Sydney on Saturday if they are to end the 16 year wait for a Test series triumph.

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