Leigh Halfpenny missed a last-minute penalty to hand Australia a 16-15 victory over the British and Irish Lions in the second Test yesterday and level the series at 1-1 ahead of the decider in Sydney next week.
What a scrappy match lacked in quality it made up for in late drama, with Adam Ashley-Cooper scoring a converted try five minutes from time to give the Wallabies a one-point lead in front of a record 56,771 crowd at the Docklands Stadium.
The Lions, chasing a first Test series win since 1997 after Kurtley Beale’s missed kick in Brisbane last week gave them a 23-21 victory in the first Test, stormed back at the home side in the last five minutes.
In echoes of Australia lock Justin Harrison’s decisive intervention in the third Test of the 2001 series, though, flanker Liam Gill snared Lions ball at a lineout close to the home line which looked destined for a catch and drive.
The Lions, and referee Craig Joubert, were not done yet, however, and another in a long string of penalties awarded by the South African whistler gave Halfpenny the chance of a sixth three-pointer of the night and a place in Lions’ history.
The Welsh fullback, all but flawless in his kicking on tour so far, approached the ball with his usual calm, but it soon became clear it would not have the legs to carry and Australian celebrations broke out around the stadium.
“We certainly made it hard for ourselves at times, but in the end we had the guts to dig it out and the kick at the end was a replay of last week except it was switched around,” Wallabies skipper James Horwill said.
His Lions counterpart Sam Warburton was disappointed to be on the losing side, but said there was all to play for.
“There’s still a Test series up for grabs, by no means is it over,” he said. “We have a very determined bunch of players, the ambition going into this game was huge and it will be even bigger going into next week, so it sets it up for a great finale.”
Lions coach Warren Gatland was frustrated that his side had failed to manage the game when they were leading 15-9 going into the closing stages.
“We were pretty comfortable at halftime, but they never give up and it went their way,” he said. “We weren’t smart enough and didn’t look after the ball well enough.”
A scrappy first half was dominated by the rulings of Joubert and the kicking of Halfpenny and Wallabies center Christian Leali’ifano.
Joubert’s rulings at the breakdown punished Australia in the early exchanges, with the Lions winning successive penalties for holding on to the ball in the tackle.
Halfpenny hit the crossbar with the first from 48m and the second was booted into touch for the Lions to launch two big driving mauls toward the home line, which the Wallabies could only collapse.
The second time Halfpenny took the points, but the Lions were having less joy with Joubert’s zero tolerance policy in the set scrum and Leali’ifano leveled the score in the 17th minute when Mako Vunipola was penalized for his binding.
Vunipola was again the guilty party at the next scrum — Joubert telling him to keep his head and shoulders up — and Leali’ifano put the Wallabies 6-3 ahead. The next scrum came courtesy of a Vunipola knock-on, but the England prop rectified his position and it was the Wallabies who were penalized, Halfpenny converting after 27 minutes.
Again the scrum led to the fifth penalty of the game, which Halfpenny despatched, but Leali’ifano tied matters up again three minutes before the break after Dan Lydiate was penalized for offside.
Halfpenny still had time to send the Lions into the break with a 12-9 lead when Ben Mowen transgressed at the breakdown and the Welshman slotted the ball through the posts from wide.
There was little more cohesion in the scoreless first 15 minutes of the second half, but the Lions looked more and more comfortable and the Wallabies increasingly desperate.
Lions winger George North summed up the physical effort of the tourists when being tackled by his opposite number Israel Folau on the hour mark, hoisting the former rugby league international into the air and driving him backwards.
By now the Lions were dominating the scrum and James Slipper was penalized at the next set piece, Halfpenny keeping his cool to punish the replacement prop and give his side a 15-9 lead after 63 minutes.
The Wallabies charged back and won a penalty close to the try line in the 72nd minute, but Horwill chose to take a scrum and when the ball came out Folau lost it in midfield.
They only needed to get it right once, though, and that moment came after a period of prolonged pressure when Genia spotted a thin defensive line to the left and flyhalf James O’Connor got the ball to Ashley-Cooper who dived over.
It only remained for Leali’ifano, perfect with four kicks from four place kicks on the night, to curl the conversion through the posts, giving his team the lead for the first time.