On Watching the 1st test: Australia vs British and Irish Lions 22nd June 2013
Do we trust the fates too much to believe
this lead will hold?
Could half-perfect Halfpenny’s half-freakish, half-time miss
be the code for the way this will unfold?
Nerves seem to have got the players too.
Bodies fly into bodies round the fringes of the breakdowns.
an overcooked kick, a pass spilt
a rolling maul driving headless into touch
and then relief.
Lions win a penalty; a line out;
take play to second phase.
O’Driscoll runs a dummy line
takes Ashley-Cooper out the frame
and Cuthbert screams through the gap that Hooper cannot plug
shrugging off tacklers like boys flick ants,
dives over the line, pure energy of the rush;
the celebrations bigger this time, like
maybe this try has done enough.
Yet, with sport,
in all its unpredictable unwillingness
to conform to pre-set narratives and journalistic storylines,
one certainty remains:
Australian sports teams
never give up.
Cheap penalty on the restart.
The lead comes down to five.
A clearance kick bounces over Genia, chasing back.
Lions defenders harassing the injury-ravaged Aussies,
but the scrum half spins a huge pass infield
and suddenly Kurtley Beale has it on the half way.
The Lions defence disorganised,
Beale is away.
Side-step, shoulder dip,
tryline rushing up, only Halfpenny in his way.
Gold shirts pouring forward,
Grizzly old O’Connell grabs hold and won’t let go,
A penalty is blown.
Beale clears the posts with ease,
and, uncomfortably, the lead
is down to two.
Not long to go now.
The Lions snap into action.
Big Maku Vunipola steals a ball
and runners scythe up the left, forwards pile into a ruck,
a soaring up-and-under from Sexton perfectly judged, impossible to deal with.
Only a few yards out. Surely we seal it now.
They crouch, they touch, they set,
but their tighthead has got round Cole
and the whole eight are wheeling, no longer in control,
Heaslip lets it spill
and somehow, Genia has poached it.
Our chance is blown.
Five minutes to go.
Australian penalty. We’re down and out.
We wait, taut with nerves,
observe the clock, how long to pull it back?
Beale loops it right of the post
and our noses are still in front.
Play just inside the Lions’ half. The crowd are racked.
After all the hard graft, the trying-to-keep-your-head
while others run their multi-legged lines
and pre-prepared plans;
after all the hours of video analysis and conditioning
and after 79 minutes of physical battering,
we now know only that a single mistake
costs the game either the way.
Vunipola forces an Australian knock-on.
Will our scrum hold this time?
In the Lions management box,
Rob Howley can’t watch.
In stands and round TV sets, fists are clenched,
The scrum slip. Reset.
They slip again.
A third time Heaslip has it at the back,
at his feet, but he won’t pick it up
and suddenly the scrum goes down.
We’ve lost it.
The cliff drops away to sharp and distant rocks.
Vertigo seizes the guts,
the sea rushes up to pull us off the edge
and it’s over.
Beale cannot miss again.
The Australian hero of the hour.
He wiggles his shoulders. Looks at the post.
He shakes those shoulders again,
ready, like Hercules, to take the glory of the world
for just one minute and rehabilitate, atone,
reinstate himself as hero.
The first half substitute, the ex-alcoholic, the bad boy done good.
Atlas passes the buck, the golden apple will be Beale’s.
And as he strides to make contact with that ball
and send over the winning penalty goal
on chewed up turf
falls to the side,
sprawled on the ground
right leg pointing uselessly upwards,
the weight of the watching world fallen down upon him
and the ball – the thing, the harbinger, the reason;
for this short time, the only thing with meaning –
travels futilely low,
bounces cruelly short,
runs dead over the Lions’ line and the final whistle blows.
We’ve done it.
They’ve gone and bloody done it