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Tough, uncompromising and relentless.
Those three words best sum up the First Ashes Test between the Kangaroos and the Lions at JJB Stadium. Reg Reagan would?ve been in his element as the game delivered perhaps the best Test seen since the last fair dinkum Kangaroo tour in 1994.
Perhaps the most fitting testament to the greatness of the contest is the fact after 80 minutes everyone (but it seemed a rather hardly impartial commentator) had forgotten the horrendous first minute high shot delivered by Lions prop Adrian Morley on his Kangaroo counterpart Robbie Kearns.
For the other 79 minutes of the match you could hardly tell Great Britain were down a player, such was the nature of their performance. Granted referee Steve Ganson barely had control of the players throughout the game, due largely in part to his non-existent 10 metres and his pathetic policing of the play the ball, all of which helped the Lions cause but they were ferocious and almost pulled off a miraculous victory. Any memories of the drubbing at Aussie Stadium last year, have been erased as the home side gave their faithful fans an old fashioned British performance. Yet still, one cannot overlook the Morley incident (which deserves a harsh sentence) and the blatant niggle tactics employed by the British, which however illegal accomplished exactly what was intended. Great Britain intimidated the Kangaroos with tenacity, and by refusing to play the far more open NRL style the visitors thrive under they made the tourists play the game their way.
But enough about the British performance, they did after all lose the match. Let?s not overlook the fact Australia despite a mass shortage of regular starters, still came through with the goods and lead the series 1-0. It was a case of the Kangaroos style being stifled by the British tactics and at times overzealous defence. Still the Roos never let the game slip away and when push came to shove (or forearms across the head for instance) the class of the Australian side rose to the occasion. Shane Webcke, Darren Lockyer, Danny Buderus and man of the match Craig Wing were the standouts for the Aussies, delivering their best at stages in the game when Australia needed it most. Webcke was particularly damaging in the second half when it appeared the British forwards had smashed the Australian pack into submission, while Buderus turned in a phenomenal defensive display. Lockyer set up Phil Bailey for the first try and then set up his own when he delivered a decisive pass to Wing, who after blinding pace turned it back inside to Lockyer for the match-winner. It was vintage Lockyer and the freakish abilities of Wing are quickly becoming legendary.
While those four stood out, Brett Kimmorley, Craig Gower, Anthony Minichiello, Petero Civoniceva and Craig Fitzgibbon put in solid performances that need to be built on in the Second Test. For the Lions, Jamie Peacock and Stuart Fielden were impressive, although Fielden seemed more intent on picking a fight than playing football at stages. Terry Newton is a lively customer but his late hit on Fitzgibbon will come under review, as should about five or six other play the ball incidents involving the rake. Andy Farrell put in a quality 80 minutes despite clearly being hampered by a knee injury but while the British were without a clear standout they worked superbly as a unit and thrived.
The 22-18 scoreline should at the very least satisfy those in the footballing world who wanted a close encounter at Test level, but they should watch the game (and the rest of the series for that matter) and then decide for themselves if this match is the first step on the road to recovery for International Rugby League.