Sport is always littered with ifs and maybes but rarely have so many been crammed into 80 minutes of Test rugby.
Those who witnessed the final act of a fluctuating epic were outnumbered by the thousands who could not bear to watch as Kurtley Beale lined up his potentially match-winning penalty from 45 metres out. Had Beale worn longer studs and not lost his footing, the Wallabies would be favourites to take the series and the Lions' management would be on the verge of nervous breakdowns.
Instead they are sitting pretty, a first series victory since 1997 within reach if they can survive the potential loss of injured front five forwards Paul O'Connell and Alex Corbisiero. They would be advised to go straight for the jugular because this Australian team may yet fancy overhauling a leg-weary touring team in the third Test in Sydney. Get the job done asap will be the Lions' mindset as they relocate south to Melbourne.
For that to happen, a couple of issues need addressing, whether or not they have to reshuffle their pack. Talking of nervous breakdowns, the Lions can ill afford a repeat of the anxieties they suffered around the tackle area, where the referee Chris Pollock officiated like a zero-tolerance traffic warden in rush hour. It is simply unreasonable to penalise players for impossibly hairline ruck infractions in a contest of such pace and intensity, even if a desire to de-clutter the game is admirable enough. All players want is a fair contest for the ball and some consistency, which was frequently absent here.
"You'd like it if all the refs interpreted it the same but that doesn't happen," said Geoff Parling, the England lock who will lead the Lions in their final midweek fixture against the Melbourne Rebels. Little wonder, then, that the call-up for the old Wallaby warrior George Smith has caused a slight flutter in Lions ranks, which is precisely what Robbie Deans intended. It seems unlikely Smith will start the second Test but simply having his expertise and experience available will make the battered Australians feel slightly better about themselves.
The Lions may have to consider adding a second specialist open-side in Sean O'Brien or Justin Tipuric to their matchday 23, if only as insurance, although Warren Gatland believes the South African official Craig Joubert will be more sympathetic. "We'll put last night behind us. Craig Joubert is a very experienced referee and it will probably be good for him to have been an assistant referee in this match and know about the pace of the game. I'm looking forward to the No1 referee in the world doing next Saturday's game."
Among those hoping for a better deal will be Brian O'Driscoll, who felt increasingly unable to compete at the breakdown after being penalised for no obvious reason. "A few players came off the field feeling a bit frustrated; they found it difficult [to understand] a couple of times when they were penalised," Gatland confirmed. "Mako Vunipola was penalised for coming in from the side but he was part of the tackle … that could have cost us the game at the end. O'Driscoll knew that if he got penalised again he would get a yellow card so he stayed away from the ball."
The Lions really would have been howling at the moon had Australia's kickers not contrived to miss 14 points between them and the home side had not ended up with two flankers in their three-quarter line and enough injuries to keep a whole squadron of flying doctors busy. The tourists, on the other hand, were unfortunate Pollock chose to cease playing an advantage in their favour just before the outstanding Will Genia launched the long-range breakaway which set up the first of the brilliant Israel Folau's two debut scores. George North, following his quite superb 60m individual try, would also have touched down again in the left corner had Folau not snaked a desperate hand in.
There was no question about Folau's mesmeric second try, like North's an absolute ripper, nor the scrum uncertainty which threatened to undermine the Lions in the final minutes. Poor Beale, though, had already missed one sitter under pressure before he stepped up for the fateful 80th-minute kick, only to slip at the crucial moment. As the visiting captain, Sam Warburton, put it: "It was the worst minute of my life. I thought the kick was going over … while I am delighted with the win it was way too close for comfort."
That was pretty much the thrust of O'Driscoll's lecture to his fellow players in the post-match huddle, where he reminded them they had won despite not playing as well as they could have done. His Leinster colleague Jamie Heaslip also reckons the Lions may have a slight advantage this weekend because of their experience of back-to-back Heineken Cup ties against the same opposition, but is keenly aware that the side winning the opening Test in Australia in 1989 and 2001 has ultimately lost the series.
"We know all about the history and what a wounded animal the Wallabies are after losing," said Heaslip, part of the 2009 squad who lost 2-1 to South Africa. Whatever happens, this contest has breathed joyously fresh life into the whole Lions concept. If there was one undisputed winner at the weekend it was the sport of rugby union.
Australia: Barnes (Waratahs; Beale (Rebels, 38); Folau (Waratahs), Ashley-Cooper (Waratahs; Phipps (Rebels, 76), Leali'ifano (Brumbies; McCabe (Brumbies, 1); Gill, (Reds, 46), Ioane (Reds); O'Connor (Rebels), Genia (Reds); Robinson (Waratahs; Slipper (Reds, 68), Moore (Brumbles), Alexander (Kepu, 57), Horwill (Reds, capt), Douglas (Waratahs; Simmons (Reds, 68), Mowen (Brumbies), Hooper, Palu (both Waratahs).
Tries: Folau 2. Con: O'Connor. Pens: O'Connor, Beale 2.
British and Irish Lions: Halfpenny (Wales); Cuthbert (Wales), O'Driscoll (Ireland), Davies (Wales), North (Wales); Sexton (Ireland), Phillips (Wales; B Youngs (England; 62); Corbisiero (England; Vunipola (England, 51), T Youngs (England; Hibbard (Wales, 64), Jones (Wales; Cole (England, 51), A W Jones (Wales; Parling (England, 70) O'Connell (Ireland), Croft (England; Lydiate (Wales, 72), Warburton (Wales, capt), Heaslip (Ireland).
Tries: North, Cuthbert. Cons: Halfpenny 2. Pens: Halfpenny 3.
Referee: C Pollock (New Zealand). Att: 52,499.
British & Irish Lions (v Melbourne Rebels): R Kearney; S Maitland, M Tuilagi, B Barritt, S Zebo; O Farrell, C Murray; R Grant, R Hibbard, D Cole, R Gray, G Parling (capt), D Lydiate, S O'Brien, T Faletau. Replacements R Best, T Court, M Stevens, I Evans, J Tipuric, B Youngs, B Twelvetrees, S Hogg.
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