Force 17-69 British & Irish Lions
Five things we learned...from the Force clash
June 6, 2013
Lions fullback Leigh Halfpenny slots one of several kicks from the touchline at the Patersons Stadium © PA Photos
The British & Irish Lions' tour continued in Perth on Wednesday night with Warren Gatland's side notching a comfortable 69-17 victory over the Western Force.
What did their latest win tell us? And what else did we learn that could impact on the Lions' chances of claiming a series victory over Australia?
'The Boot' is re-born
All Blacks legend Don Clarke may have been known as 'The Boot' but the modern game has its own kicking king in the form of Leigh Halfpenny. The Lions' fullback was in simply sensational form against the Force. His stats - nine from nine conversions and two out of two penalties - are impressive enough but that does not do his place-kicking master class justice. Nothing was too much for the soft-spoken Welshman with every effort - including several from the touchline - sailing through the uprights. Halfpenny has long been inked into the Test side and following this stunning display, and fly-half Jonathan Sexton's failure to fire with the boot in Hong Kong, he is set to shoulder the goal-kicking duties against the Wallabies as well with the Irishman set to be allowed to concentrate on his playmaking duties. The influence of kicking coach Neil Jenkins, whose boot helped steer the Lions to their last series victory in 1997, cannot be underestimated with a grateful Halfpenny stating: "I can't think of a better guy to have teaching me and having alongside me in games and in training." Halfpenny, who saw his Lions hopes dashed in 2009 by injury, realised a "dream" by kicking for the Lions having watched You dream of it and watch the likes of Jenkins and Jonny Wilkinson on previous tours and he is surely destined to join that illustrious list of Lions greats.
Lions need to bare their teeth
Much of the build-up to the Lions' latest outing was dominated by the Force's under-strength selection with Lions legend Sir Ian McGeechan labelling it "disrespectful" and another former coach Sir Clive Woodward accusing Australia of treating their visitors with disrespect. The decision not only denied the Lions what would have been a valuable test with the schedule offering just four more games before the opening clash with the Wallabies but was also a snub to fans - both the Force's loyal following who would have relished seeing their side go up against the best from the northern hemisphere and those who have travelled around the world to follow the Lions. The Patersons Stadium was nowhere near a sell out in what should serve as a warning to organisers. The Force's decision to prioritise their Super Rugby clash this weekend is understandable to an extent and you cannot help but think SANZAR could have given them a little more breathing room. But at the same time the Lions must secure contractual assurances from their hosts, in this case the Australian Rugby Union, and all their opponents ahead of any tour. The Lions cannot market a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fans and promise the chance to see the team take on Super Rugby sides and then simply point the finger at their opposition when the fixture rolls around and they are faced with what amounts to a second-string side.
Indiscipline threatens to undermine the Lions' impressive efforts on the field after prop Cian Healy landed himself a citing having allegedly bitten Force scrum-half Brett Sheehan. The Lions have precious little time to prepare for their showdown with the Wallabies and a suspension and the enforced absence of a key figure, who has been in great form of late, would certainly hinder their chances of a first series victory since 1997. There is no smoke without fire and although Sheehan later admitted he was unsure whether "it was an accident or on purpose" - how you bite someone accidently is unclear - it is alarming that Healy would jeopardise his own tour and his side's chances in such a way. A tour that could cement his name among the greats is in danger of ending in disgrace if he is found guilty. Even if the Irishman is cleared of wrong doing his actions and the resulting headlines and disciplinary process are an unwanted distraction for the history-chasing Lions.
Defence wins matches
As pleasing as the Lions' nine-try haul will be to boss Warren Gatland the fact that they leaked two tries to a second-string Force side is sure to irritate assistant coach Andy Farrell who has responsibility for defence. The fact that the Force were able to strike twice despite being largely starved of opportunities in the Lions' 22 should serve as a warning that the best sides do not need second chances to make you pay. Of particular concern, and most painful in the video review, will be the fact that one Force try came when the hosts were down to 14-men due to the sin-binning of centre Ed Stubbs. Defence wins matches and similar lapses against better quality opposition - bigger, stronger and faster - will cost the Lions dear with a potent-looking Reds side awaiting them in Brisbane this weekend.
Warburton has reason to worry
Lions captain Sam Warburton was once again a spectator in Perth due to his troublesome knee injury and once again he will have seen a rival for his place in the Test side impress. In Hong Kong, it was Wales' Justin Tipuric who caught the eye with a typically industrious display punctuated with enviable flair and vision. In Perth, it was Ireland's Sean O'Brien who was the driving force behind much of what the Lions did with and without the ball. Gatland acknowledged the selection headache post-game: "The challenge for us coaches is who the hell are we going to pick for that first Test?" Tipuric and O'Brien have set the bar very high and Warburton's belated tour bow comes against the Lions' most difficult opposition so far. The Lions' skipper spoke pre-tour about how he is at his best when backed into a corner and under pressure to deliver his best - time will tell if that is the case.
Lions flanker Sean O'Brien carves a hole in the Force defence © Getty Images
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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