Rugby News, Irish Rugby, Lions tour, Aviva stadium, International rugby news
Enough of this already. The Lions spoke of last Saturday in Hong Kong having set a marker which had to be bettered and strictly speaking it was; the 52-point winning margin eclipsing the victory over the Barbarians by a point and against more spirited, if less talented, opposition who played for the full 80. Yet two matches in there’s still a strong whiff of a phoney war going on.
On the Lions last tour here a dozen years ago, they ran up a century against Western Australia in the WACA and scored 241 points in their first three games before being mugged by Australia A in game four.
For all the talk about “concentrating on ourselves”, in the aftermath of this facile win Warren Gatland betrayed a first hint of frustration when referring to the 2009 tour to South Africa when the Lions won their opening six matches before losing the first Test.
“Ideally, we would like to be playing against the strongest sides that we possibly can, and if we can’t then we are going to have to replicate some of it in training. It’s something we learnt from 2009.
“We arrived at that first Test against South Africa thinking we were in pretty good nick, and it was a big step up. I don’t think we will get caught this time. We’ve just got to be aware of the opposition we are playing, and if we do have victories like tonight we don’t get too carried away with it.
“I think there is something special and unique about Lions tours,” he added. “You have got to embrace it. The amount of rugby it is going to generate for Australian rugby, they need to take it seriously.”
Gatland anticipated a tougher game in the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane and that will assuredly be the case.
The Queensland Reds include Wallabies call-ups Will Genia, James Horwill and the brilliant Liam Gill. But it is a 55,000 sell-out already for a game being billed as Quade Cooper’s last chance to force his way into the Wallabies’ squad, though the likelihood remains James O’Connor or the “focused” Kurtley Beale, who is the incumbent 10, will be the Test starting outhalf.
In the circumstances, the Lions could not have achieved much more. Once again they showed a potent mix of big, hard carriers, who burst through and carried on into tackles repeatedly, but there was a fair amount of subtlety and skill too, albeit against a patchwork mix of six internationals, some with limited Super Rugby experience and a few rookies who, between them, missed 27 tackles.
After a second-quarter lull, Gatland was pleased with his team’s ruthlessness after some strong talking at half-time.
Generally there was good shape to their attack, with the Lions again exploiting the blindside to then truck it up before using the full width of the pitch to telling effect.
Accordingly, most of their tries were scored wide out.
With Jonny Sexton pulling the strings on the gainline, the Lions also read the Force defence pushing up hard – they were frequently pinged for offside by the impressive Glen Jackson, an English Premiership finalist only three years ago – to make hay with balls back inside.
On the debit side, there were a couple of defensive glitches, which both Gatland and Andy Farrell conceded will prompt some work and, alas, the glitches in Rory Best’s line-out throwing resurfaced, with a couple of overthrows at attacking line-outs. A sluggish night for Alun-Wyn Jones ended with a 72nd minute yellow card.
The lack of a truly competitive fixture aside, there were many more positive. Jamie Heaslip carried with real ballast and footwork, while also leading the Lions’ tackle count with 12, but alongside him Seán O’Brien was hugely prominent.
Conor Murray was harried illegally several times, but passed crisply enough, indeed gave a couple of try-scoring passes, and kept the fringe defence occupied. Outside him, Sexton oozed class, running in the first of the nine tries himself, attacking the gain line and repeatedly putting those inside and out into space.
He was, revealed Gatland afterwards, disappointed not to have the place-kicking duties, but couldn’t have bettered Leigh Halfpenny’s perfect 11 out of 11 kicks at goal. Given the majority of the conversions were from the touchline, that 28-point haul was remarkable.
The Manu Tuilagi-Brian O’Driscoll combination dovetailed nicely on its first outing, with the two switching effectively between inside and outside centre, and even allowing for his classy touches and clever brace of tries in the city where he made a try-scoring debut a dozen years ago, O’Driscoll didn’t have exclusive rights on all of the neat handling.
The neat midfield triangle worked between Sexton and the two centres, the outhalf dummying to O’Driscoll before Tuilagi crashed up the middle to free his hands and release his captain for a run-in untouched underneath the posts for his second try was possibly the pick of the nine scored.
As was the case last Saturday in Hong Kong, two big, potent, ball-carrying wingers were often used up the wing, with George North’s work in contact against bordering on freakish.