Christian beats the Lions as Australia level series
Halfpenny misses last-gasp long-ranger for the win, but Leali'ifano is flawless with his kicking to take the series to thrilling decider next week
Christian Leali'ifano's Australia debut lasted 54 seconds when he was taken from the field unconscious in the first test against the British & Irish Lions, but the inside centre made his second start count by kicking his side to victory last night.
The 25-year-old was cleared to play only on Thursday after passing all concussion tests and took back the kicking duties at Docklands Stadium after his deputies Kurtley Beale and James O'Connor made a number of costly misses at Lang Park.
In a game featuring only a solitary try, Leali'ifano traded penalty goals with fullback Leigh Halfpenny, the Welshman kicking the Lions to a 15-9 lead that remained into the final minutes.
Adam Ashley-Cooper's 77th-minute try put the Wallabies within a point, leaving Leali'ifano a hairy conversion kick from near the left touchline to edge his side a point ahead. Under enormous pressure, and with Beale's missed kick to win the match for the Wallabies in Brisbane fresh in the minds of a record crowd of more than 56,000, Leali'ifano struck truly, the ball bending back to sail through the posts.
In a blockbuster finish, Halfpenny was awarded a penalty after the siren from the halfway line, but the laser-sharp Welshman's kick fell short to spark jubilation among the Wallabies, who levelled the series 1-1, with the decider in Sydney next week.
"I've seen him kick them from there before. He just didn't strike that one well enough," Lions coach Warren Gatland said. "Just, you know, a chance to be a hero in that moment ... unfortunately he hasn't hit it quite as well as he's capable of doing."
Versatile ACT Brumbies back Leali'ifano, whose potential has long been noted but frustrated by a series of injuries, had finally got going after a number of false starts, Australia coach Robbie Deans said. "He's class. Remarkable on his 'debut'," the New Zealander said. "Because it was his 'debut'. To deal with that sort of pressure as calmly as he did, he's clearly got a big future."
Captain Sam Warburton was sympathetic with his despairing Welsh teammate after Halfpenny finished with five penalties from seven attempts.
"I've seen Leigh kick them before so I think it was a good decision to go for the three points. In training he'll bang them over but he just didn't connect," Warburton said. "He can't blame himself, it was an extremely difficult kick. Come Monday morning he'll be fine, he'll be back kicking with Jenks [goalkicking coach Neil Jenkins] and he'll be as good as gold.
"It was the right decision, he had to go for it because it was a realistic opportunity to win the series and if I was on the pitch I would have looked at Leigh straight away and told him to go for it."
Warburton came off 13 minutes from the end with an injured hamstring and is unsure if he will be able to play next week. "This is a new injury, so I'm not too sure to be honest."
Israel Folau, another Wallabies back expected to do big things, failed to score a try in his second test in something of a let-down for an Australian public thrilled by the rugby league convert's stunning two-try debut in Brisbane. But the explosive winger was threatening throughout in his second test, dominating aerial contests and making a number of line-breaks to trouble the Lions defence.
"He did very well. He offered himself up at the end there. He really took initiative, injected himself in the game and got us over the gain line at a critical time," Deans said. "That's the sort of great thing we're looking for from him."
Gatland said he thought the Lions, who won the first test 23-21, would be even better for the decider with the likes of centre Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips and prop Alex Corbisiero back in contention. "It was difficult tonight because defences dominated for both sides so we've got some players now for next week now that are fit and in contention," he said.
Reuters, Agence France-Presse