North, Folau light up 1st test with 3 tries
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — George North face-to-face with Israel Folau. It was billed as the duel of the first test between the British and Irish Lions and the Wallabies.
The 21-year-old Welsh winger against the rugby league convert from Australia. Both big, both fast and both described by teammates, in the nicest possible way, as physical freaks.
It didn’t disappoint.
Folau, who played rugby league for Australia before a stint in the Aussie rules Australian Football League, shifted this season to rugby union and scored two tries in his first half of a union international.
North, who overcame a hamstring injury to secure his place in the Lions starting lineup, crossed the tryline twice — scoring once and being ruled just out the second time.
While the difference in the Lions’ 23-21 victory came down to kicking — Leigh Halfpenny landed five of his six shots at goal and Australian place-kickers James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale missed five shots between them — the highlights reels will be dominated by the wingers.
Folau scored first, collecting a Will Genia grubber kick at the end of a long-range raid from a quick tap, and crossed in the right corner in the 14th minute.
Not to be outdone, North fielded an aimless kick from Australia fullback Berrick Barnes and sprinted half the length of the field in a daring counterattack, leaving four tacklers in his wake, and crossed in the 26th.
“I can’t begin to tell you how good it felt when I crossed that line,” North said. “It was an unbelievable feeling. We won and I got my first test try (for the Lions). It doesn’t get much better than that.”
He went over again soon after, but the video official ruled that his left elbow touched the sideline as he grounded the ball in the desperate cover tackles of Folau and Genia, and no try was awarded.
Five minutes before the break, Folau produced a personal gem, using a big right step to wrongfoot Lions flyhalf Jonathan Sexton out on the right flank, and then stepping another defender in an unstoppable run to the tryline.
Welshman Alex Cuthbert scored the only try of the second half, slicing through a reshuffled Australian midfield and making it four-from-four for wingers.
Wales has had some bitter late losses against the Australians in recent years, and North could barely believe it when Beale lined up to take a penalty goal in the last minute that could have given the Wallabies another come-from-behind win. But Beale slipped as he stepped into the ball, the kick faded and the Lions players celebrated a gut-churning victory.
“It was a remarkable win and a remarkable result,” North said. “My heart was in my mouth at the end. I think everyone was feeling the same. To be honest, I couldn’t really bring myself to watch the kick.
“It was one of those moments you just fear in a game ... and it shows the margins at this level.”
Folau said the only way he could have improved on his Wallabies debut was with a victory.
“Obviously I’m very happy with my personal performance, but disappointed with the result,” he said. Folau has played mainly at fullback since transferring to rugby union for the New South Wales Waratahs this season, and had the added pressure of playing on the wing in his test debut and having to work in a reshuffled backline after four players went off injured.
“That hurt us a bit in the end. That’s something you can’t train for and unfortunately it turned out that way.”
Wallabies captain James Horwill was impressed with Folau’s debut, and hoped it was a sign of more to come in the second test next week.
“He is a freak of a talent. He has the X-factor,” Horwill said. “When he gets his hands on the ball, things happen.”
Lions defensive coach Andy Farrell has Folau in his sights, and is formulating ways to stop him.
“I told you he was dangerous,” Farrell said. “He’s some talent. He’s got brilliant feet and he’s very good in the air. He’s a threat.”
One way to stop Folau, according to Lions captain Sam Warburton, is to keep putting North in front of him and trying to turn defense into attack.
North is “an immense athlete,” Warburton said. “The best athlete I’ve seen. When he gets his hands on the ball he’s extremely hard to defend against.”