x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

British & Irish Lions: Tour plays to script and a winner takes all finale is fitting

Two down, one to go. All to fight for in Sydney on Saturday. The script this British & Irish Lions tour has been following so far has been pure Hollywood.

Christian Leali'ifano then hit the conversion for the Wallabies to give them the second Test. Leali'ifano also hit three penalties.
Christian Leali'ifano then hit the conversion for the Wallabies to give them the second Test. Leali'ifano also hit three penalties.

Immediately after a decider was booked for a Test series that should only ever be written in superlatives, Robbie Deans, the truculent New Zealander who coaches Australia's national rugby union team, was asked precisely how it felt.

"A darn sight better than the alternative," was his prosaic response in his television interview at the conclusion of the latest British & Irish Lions epic.

Quite.

The alternative could have been gruesome indeed for the under-fire coach.

Anguish. Pain. Ridicule.

General oblivion.

And probably the sack for being the first coach in 16 years to lead a side to defeat against the Lions.

It is hard to imagine someone as seemingly reticent as Deans could inspire in the way of Al Pacino's fictitious coach in the American football movie Any Given Sunday.

But in this game of inches, his side had clawed their way back to life.

Two down, one to go. All to fight for in Sydney on Saturday.

The script this series has been following so far has been pure Hollywood.

Yesterday even had a weepy ending, judged by the look of James Horwill, the storied Australia captain.

Horwill is 6ft 6ins and 18-and-a-half stone of pure Australian bloke.

You cannot imagine he cries at chick flicks.

But he had no filter for his emotions and he let it all out in a tearful embrace with his teammates at the final whistle at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne.

The general consensus is that a series against the Lions represents the summit of achievement for these players.

Horwill's heightened state of sentimentality was probably due to the realisation that he could well be denied the chance to influence the finale.

The towering second row will have his citing for an alleged stamp on Alun Wyn Jones in the opening Test at Brisbane revisited this week - this time by the International Rugby Board, the game's governing body.

His prospects do not look good.

If the Wallabies are on the lookout for a last action hero in his possible absence, they might have already found one in the form of Christian Leali'ifano.

Leali'ifano's star has taken its time to reach its zenith after he was one of the standout players as an 18 year old when Australia won the Junior World Championships in the UAE in 2006.

Others from that vintage have long been established internationals, most notably the impish genius Will Genia, who started on the bench in that final at Dubai but now yields to nobody in the sport.

Leali'ifano's path to stardom has been potted, to say the least.

His father passed away just before that tournament here and he inscribes "Tavita" on his wristband in thick black marker before each game in memory of him.

His Test debut, which itself only came about after he overcame a serious long-term ankle injury, was supposed to be dedicated to his late father.

But that did not begin or end well. He sustained a concussion 37 seconds after the match started against the Lions a week ago after he tried to tackle Jonathan Davies head first.

Test No 2 was a far more fitting tribute, as the 25-year-old centre played a vital hand in taking the Wallabies to a one point win in a pulsating contest.

Back in 2008, Australia's likely lads conquered the world when they beat New Zealand in the final thanks to an Anthony Fainga'a drop-goal.

It was a lesser spotted phenomenon: according to his brother, captain Saia Fainga'a, he had never managed a drop-goal before, not even in the backyard at home.

The class of 2008 clearly revel in the pressure of a late kick at goal.

With the stakes now rather substantially higher, Leali'ifano was entirely nerveless when he kicked the decisive conversion following Adam Ashley-Cooper's try.

If the resurgent ACT Brumbies inside-centre does get another chance to haul Australia over the line next weekend, it would be difficult to begrudge him his glory.

 

 

THREE UP ....


Christian Leali'ifano (Australia)

Australia might have had this series sewn up already had Leali'ifano not run into Jonathan Davies's knee 37 seconds in to his debut last week. They had 14 missed points in the first Test. Their kicker was flawless this time under intense pressure.

 

James Horwill (Australia)

Maybe he should not have been playing following his alleged stamp in Brisbane. Reprieved by the commission, his courageous call to take a scrum instead of kick for goal with nine minutes left proved to be inspired.

 

Lions Test series

Australia will be happy to fight another day. The Lions will be devastated they have not settled it. The neutral? Can there possibly be such a thing? There can be few more appealing spectacles for a rugby fan than a Lions series decider.

 

AND THREE DOWN ...

 

Mako Vunipola (Lions)

For much of the first half, the Lions' efforts seemed to be floundering because of one person: their loosehead prop. He was a liability at the scrum and exacerbated the fact when he knocked on in open play to stunt a Lions attack, but showed character to claw it back.

 

James O'Connor (Australia)

Who to blame for the Wallabies' lack of navigation from No 10 - the man wearing the shirt or the coach who insists on playing a world-class winger there? A variety of errors were clues to O'Connor being out of f sync.

 

Leigh Halfpenny (Lions)

The full-back had been immaculate on tour so far. He had missed just two kicks from 27 before this Test. The two out of seven he missed yesterday, each of which fell short, cost the Lions the Test.

 

 

pradley@thenational.ae

 

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