Qantas Wallabies coach Robbie Deans has praised his players after the heartbreaking 23-21 loss in a gripping first Test of the DHL Australia 2013 Lions Tour in Brisbane.
The Wallabies scrum, which was under pressure early in the game, forced a penalty with less two minutes to go and Kurtley Beale, who had come off the reserves bench, stepped up to take the kick, but he slipped over and it fell short.
As a result the British and Irish Lions take a a 1-0 nil series into next Saturday's second Test in Melbourne as they did 12 years ago on their last visit to Australia.
Both teams scored two tries each all to wingers with Wallabies winger Israel Folau crossing over for a double in a superb Test debut.
In the end it was goal-kicking that proved the difference with Lions fullback Leigh Halfpenny kicking four from five, while the Wallabies left 14 points on the field, missing four penalty goals and a conversion. Beale kicked two from four, while five-eighth James O’Connor landed two from five.
In an extraordinary situation the Wallabies lost four backs - inside centre Christian Lealiifano (concussion), fullback Berrick Barnes (suspected broken jaw), replacement number 12 Pat McCabe (neck) and outside centre Adam Ashley-Cooper (shoulder) – to injury.
Openside flanker Michael Hooper played inside centre for the last half hour of the game and back-up halfback Nick Phipps spent the last three minutes on the wing.
And yet the Wallabies bravely put themselves in a position to win the game.
“Obviously very frustrating,” Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said. “I was very proud of the effort. It was a trying circumstance. To put themselves in a position to win the game was a good effort.
“Obviously, we didn’t so we got to Melbourne now having to win.
“It was a courageous performance. It would stack up well alongside any. On that basis it’s disappointing not to get the reward.”
Asked whether he thought the better team lost, Deans said: “You can draw your own conclusions. We lost.”
Lions coach Warren Gatland had no doubt his team deserved to win.
“My initial reaction was this isn’t going to happen again,” Gatland said in reference to the number of close games his Welsh team has lost to the Wallabies.
“It’s happened the last three times in the last couple of minutes, but they only kick those goals against Wales.
“It was relief and then after that t was we deserved to win that game. We knew it was going to be tight. There’s not much difference between the two sides.
“It was a bit like a sparring match the first one. Both teams finding out a bit about each other. We saw that and I think both teams will get better after that first hit-out.”
The Wallabies trailed 13-12 at halftime even though they out-scored the Lions two tries to one in the first 40 minutes with O’Connor landing one from four.
Lealiifano was stretchered off after being knocked out cold tackling Jonathan Davies front on in opening minute of game. He was replaced by McCabe.
He was meant to be the Wallabies goal-kicker and O’Connor missed his first two attempts at penalty goal in the fifth and seventh minutes after veteran Lions centre Brian O’Driscoll went off his feet on both occasions.
Folau opened the scoring with a try in the 12th minute, becoming the first Australian to score on debut against the Lions since Greg Martin in 1989.
The Wallabies were awarded a penalty just inside their 22 and halfback Will Genia took a quick tap and caught the Lions napping. Racing up-field, he grubber kicked to Folau, who dashed to the line and improved the position for an easy conversion for O’Connor.
Halfpenny got the Lions on the scoreboard with a penalty goal in the 24th minute after Wallabies captain James Horwill joined a ruck from the side.
The Lions hit the front with a converted try to winger George North in the 25th minute. He caught a clearing kick by Barnes and beat McCabe and Barnes in a 65 metre run to the line.
North was over the line again five minutes later, but the TMO ruled he did not ground the ball and his elbow was in touch.
But referee Chris Pollock was playing advantage and Halfpenny brought up his 300th Test point with a penalty goal, which increased the Lions’ lead to 13-7.
The Wallabies struck back with a second try to Folau in the 34th minute. Taking a pass from blindside flanker Ben Mowen 40 metres from the Lions’ line, Folau stepped inside five-eighth Jonathan Sexton and fended off prop Alex Corbisiero.
The Wallabies could have regained the lead, but O’Connor missed the conversion attempt and the score remained at 13-12.
Barnes was stretchered off in the 38th minute after a collision with Folau, who was pushed in the back by North. He was replaced by Beale.
Halfpenny, who had kicked 22 of 23 attempts coming into the game, had an opportunity to extend the Lions’ lead on the stroke of half-time, but he showed he was only human when he missed the wide-angled attempt.
McCabe was stretchered off in the 46th minute after hurting his neck and was replaced by openside flanker Liam Gill with Hooper moving to inside centre.
The Lions immediately took advantage of Hooper’s inexperience as a centre by executing a rehearsed move in the midfield, which led to a converted try by winger Alex Cuthbert in the 48th minute.
O’Connor reduced the deficit to five points with a penalty goal in the 51st minute after the Lions went off their feet at a ruck.
Beale got the Wallabies within two points with a penalty goal from 45 metres in the 61st minute after Lions number eight Jamie Heaslip took Genia out of play at a ruck.
Halfpenny regained the Lions’ five-point lead with a penalty goal in the 65th minute, but Beale cut it back to two again with a penalty goal in the 68th minute after he made a great break to take the attack into the 22.
Beale had a chance to take the lead for the Wallabies, but he missed a relatively easy attempt at penalty goal in the 75th minute before taking that last long range attempt.
The Wallabies will look to level the series in Melbourne next Saturday night. While Deans was unsure of the extent of the injuries, he anticipated there would be changes to the team.
BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS 23 (Alex Cuthbert, George North tries Leigh Halfpenny 2 cons 3 pens) AUSTRALIA 21 (Israel Folau 2 tries James O'Connor con Kurtley Beale 2, O'Connor pens) at Suncorp Stadium. Referee: Chris Pollock. Crowd: 52,499.