BRISBANE, Australia: The British and Irish Lions edged a thrilling opening Test 23-21 against an injury-hit Australia Saturday to seize the momentum in their pursuit of a first series win in 16 years.
Both teams scored two tries, but although replacement back Kurtley Beale twice had the chance to kick the Wallabies to victory in the final minutes, he agonisingly missed both penalty attempts.
The Lions, who have not won a series since South Africa in 1997, remain unbeaten in eight Tests in Brisbane since 1899 and are now just one victory away from a long overdue series triumph.
“Massive delight. Whichever team gets the first win takes a lot of momentum into the next match,” said Lions captain Sam Warburton.
But in the final minutes, the Lions were lucky to escape defeat against a Wallaby side that had three players stretchered off with injury and finished with loose forward Michael Hooper playing in the centres.
The tourists will now look to clinch the series in the second Test in Melbourne next weekend, with a third Test in Sydney on July 6.
However, Australia captain James Horwill was encouraged by his team’s battling display.
“We didn’t have a lot of ball in the first half and what we did have we didn’t make the most of it,” said Horwill. “We can take a lot of confidence into next week.”
The Test will be remembered for outstanding individual tries by Wallaby debutant Israel Folau and his Welsh opposite number George North in a pulsating first half.
But the Wallabies had a major setback when debutant Christian Lealiifano was knocked out in making the first tackle of the match in the opening minute and was replaced by Pat McCabe.
Brian O’Driscoll was penalised twice in the ruck and got a ticking-off by referee Chris Pollock, but flyhalf James O’Connor failed to capitalise, missing both his penalty attempts.
The Lions forward pack gained an early psychological blow when they pushed the Wallaby scrum backwards to a huge roar from the red-shirted fans in the 52,499 crowd at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.
The Wallabies defence held firm under pressure but Will Genia broke free on a quick tap and when faced by fullback Halfpenny, he kicked for winger Folau to pick up and run over for a try on his debut in the 14th minute.
Halfpenny kicked his first penalty in the 24th minute to steady the Lions and two minutes later, North put the visitors in front with a sensational solo try.
The powerful Welsh winger fielded Berrick Barnes’ aimless kick and beat four Wallaby defenders — McCabe, O’Connor, Barnes and Genia — to score in the left corner to an ear-splitting ovation.
Halfpenny converted from the sideline to put the Lions 10-7 up. And the Wallabies, now under immense pressure, had an enormous let-off when North’s elbow went into touch as he sought his second try.
Halfpenny kicked the Lions three points further ahead to a 13-7 lead, but Folau scored another extraordinary try six minutes before the break when he stepped past Jonny Sexton and beat two more tackles for a try double on debut.
O’Connor missed the sideline conversion to leave the home side trailing 13-12 at half-time. He left eight points out on the field in the first period.
Just before the break, the Wallabies had a second player stretchered off when Berrick Barnes collided with Folau’s head under pressure from North and made way for Beale.
And minutes into the second half, the Wallabies’ cruel luck continued when replacement McCabe became the third Australian stretchered off with an apparent neck injury, with Hooper moving across as a makeshift centre.
The Lions cleverly worked play towards Hooper with a sweeping backline move and Sexton put Alex Cuthbert spearing through for their second try after using O’Driscoll as a decoy runner.
Halfpenny’s conversion stretched the Lions’ advantage to 20-12 with half-an-hour to go.
But O’Connor reduced the arrears to five points with a penalty, and then Beale, taking over the kicking duties, knocked over another three-pointer from 45 metres to put the Wallabies just two behind.
As tension rose, Halfpenny and Beale traded penalties inside the final 14 minutes to maintain the two-point difference at 23-21 to the Lions.
And with six minutes left, Beale had the chance to kick the Wallabies to the front but he pushed his penalty attempt wide.
Then at the death Beale had another kick to win it for Australia, but he dramatically slipped on his run-up as the golden chance went begging.