OPINION: It is supposed to be a three match series between the British and Irish Lions and Australia, but three New Zealanders dominated the first test. The Lions may have won the match, but in the battle of the coaches, referee Chris Pollock scored the bout in favour of Robbie Deans.
The Canterbury man has not always been the most popular man in Australia. November's performance against France shamed Australia's legacy of positive rugby, but against the Lions on Saturday night Deans and a nation could be proud of the team.
Deans fast-tracked Israel Folau into his starting XV, despite the big man's lack of rugby experience. The Lions played on Folau's positional naivety with some success, but overall Folau came out a long way ahead.
Australia had identified that the Lions defence can be soft at the edges. In previous games the Lions had pushed up hard in the midfield and dropped their wings, leaving space that Quade Cooper and the Reds had exploited effectively.
The Lions played a more passive, drift style of defence in the test, but Australia was still able to exploit their vulnerability on the fringes. With so many big men, the Lions do not turn and scramble as well as some teams - the All Blacks for example - and Australia twice caught them out.
The policy was to tap and go from any part of the pitch if the opportunity arose, and Will Genia, who was again quite outstanding, took off for the first try. The defence of his opposite number Mike Phillips was awful. The Lions scrum-half even gave up the chase, allowing James O'Connor to draw George North in - not the cleverest in these situations - so Genia could put Folau into the hole.
Australia's second try again exposed the Lions' shortcomings in defence. Tom Croft was left defending a wide channel and he needed to hold his position and drift. Instead he rushed up and good hands from Stephen Moore and Ben Mowen again put Folau away. Given how many points Australia were able to score off so little ball, the Lions are really going to have to look at their defence again.
Deans has also done much to change the toxic culture of the Aussies. It is not the toxicity that Quade Cooper famously had in mind, but the 'me, me, me' attitude of some of the backs. Deans has brought in leaders, like Ben Mowen, to change the balance of power in the camp.
The Australian leadership certainly got the better of the Lions in the first test. Warren Gatland had made Sam Warburton Lions captain because of his ability to get on with referees. That decision did not play.
Warburton appealed to Pollock on more than one occasion - not without considerable justification - but got nowhere. He wondered why Australia were allowed to pull a maul down on their own line without severe punishment.
"I didn't see it that way," said Pollock.
Warburton pointed out that Australia's No 8 was offside and preventing clean-out at a maul.
"I didn't see him," said Pollock.
This was some achievement as Wycliff Palu is a man mountain at 120kg and six feet four. But there was much that Pollock did not see. The most extraordinary sequence was in the lead-up to Australia's opening try.
Pollock signalled a penalty, but although the Lions never got past the point of the original penalty he called "advantage over." The ref then ignored a double knock on and awarded the home side a penalty after three of them had dived in off their feet. Gatland observed that the Lions had been "crucified" at the breakdown.
One could claim that Pollock only added to the Northern Hemisphere's view of the clownish nature of Kiwi refs - cross reference Steve Walsh and Bryce Lawrence - but Deans will say that his leaders managed Pollock far better than the Lions. It should have won Australia the match as Pollock awarded them an extraordinary eight penalties to two in the second half.
Deans has selection issues. O'Connor is not a test ten. Barnes conceded a try with a poor kick, not for the first time, and seemed lost at 15. But Gatland also has issues. Wayne Smith wrote an article for the Rugby Site saying why Ben Youngs had to start, but predictably Gatland went with Phillips who had yet another shocker against Genia and Australia.
Gatland had some success with his combination of power and angles. The Lions rendered several Australian backs unfit to carry on - including, crucially, their expert goalkicker - and they smashed through on several occasions. But the Lions driving maul from the lineout was infiltrated by James Horwill, using the captain's license to wander offside. And the scrum replacements weakened their other set piece.
The Lions look by far the superior side in terms of playing ability and they gave Australia little lineout ball to play off with a well-conceived kicking game. But after the first round, Deans shaded the battle of the Kiwi coaches, aided by a very generous referee.
- © Fairfax NZ News