Ireland’s Conor Murray and Sean O’Brien were among the try scorers as the British & Irish Lions comfortably won their final midweek match of the tour in Melbourne.
It was a satisfying performance and result from the tourists at AAMI Park with a number of players – including try scorer Sean O’Brien and the lively Simon Zebo – grasping the opportunity to press their claims for Test selection.
In truth, the Lions should have scored more than five tries but the high standards maintained throughout in defence were just as pleasing for the coaching staff.
Conor Murray, another player who looked sharp, scored his second try of the tour and Sean Maitland grabbed his first as the Lions broke into a 14-0 lead by the half hour mark.
Captained by Welshman Gareth Delve, the Rebels were tricky opponents and Warren Gatland’s side had to work hard for their points.
All three of the Lions’ second half tries came from lineouts, a well-worked move freeing flanker O’Brien for a deserved score and replacement hooker Rory Best was on the cusp of a maul try before Jordy Reid was yellow carded for a blatant offside which resulted in a penalty try.
The fifth and final touchdown was scored by another of the replacements, scrum half Ben Youngs, who used Tom Croft’s tap down to speed through a gap, fend off Jarrod Saffy and crash over under the posts past the covering Jason Woodward.
O’Brien was one of the players to emerge with a good deal of credit from the game, carrying strongly in attack and maintaining a big presence at the breakdowns, while his back row colleague Toby Faletau made 13 tackles and carried for 60 metres.
Rob Kearney (90 metres) and Zebo (75) covered the most metres with ball in hand for the Lions, with the Cork youngster making two clean breaks and throwing three offloads including a sumptuous one-handed pass to Manu Tuilagi late on.
The Lions probed in the opening minutes with some neat offloading from the dynamic Richie Gray and Richard Hibbard, and had Brad Barritt held onto a pass on the right they may have scored a try.
O’Brien ripped the ball free to set up an attack from further out, but Melbourne gleaned two early lineout steals to force their way into Lions territory.
The Lions bossed the first meaningful scrum, winning a penalty in their own 22, and good carries from Tuilagi and Kearney launched them forward before Delve caught Ryan Grant with a blockbusting tackle.
Woodward’s well-drilled clearance kick released the pressure on the Rebels and the full-back also came to their rescue when reaching a dangerous Barritt grubber kick ahead of Maitland.
But the Lions opened the scoring from the resulting five-metre scrum as the forwards dominated the set piece, number 8 Faletau was held up and Murray swiftly turned a scrappy ball into a try with a clever turn from a metre out.
Owen Farrell added the right-sided conversion with aplomb, and the Lions were quickly back on the front foot with captain Dan Lydiate and Faletau combining to force a penalty from the tackled Delve.
The onrushing Zebo was close to collecting an O’Brien offload. The Carlow man was eager for work and a little too keen at times, offering a needless penalty to Melbourne which Woodward kicked wide.
The Lions responded with a classy second try, profiting from O’Brien’s soft hands that released Tuilagi on the left. Faletau unfortunately slipped in front of the posts but the tourists kept the move going and Zebo’s precise pass to the right sent Maitland over out wide.
Farrell nailed his second conversion of the night and he led a breakout that included some great footwork from Zebo, although the winger’s subsequent pass to the supporting Farrell was ruled forward.
The Rebels bounced back approaching half-time, threatening thanks to a slashing midfield charge from centre Mitch Inman. However, they were denied by an Ian Evans lineout steal after opting to go for touch from a kickable penalty.
The Lions still had a number of errors to iron out from the opening 40 minutes, and the accuracy in defence was high on the restart with scrum half Murray forcing a ruck penalty.
The resulting lineout maul was well defended by Scott Fuglistaller and company near the Rebels’ try-line, and the hosts held out again as Maitland’s long pass to O’Brien went straight into touch.
There were 50 minutes on the clock when O’Brien got over for a try that his all-action efforts deserved. Faletau won a close-in lineout, Gray linked swiftly with Lydiate and he passed for the Irish openside to barge past Cadeyrn Neville and dot down in the corner.
Another smashing conversion followed from Farrell, who had an impressive night playing flat at out-half, before replacement lock Luke Jones led an eye-catching counter for the Rebels.
Zebo continued to work hard in broken play and Ulster and Ireland front row duo Rory Best and Tom Court both entered the fray soon after, the latter making his debut for the Lions.
Into the final quarter, the withdrawal of Farrell and Kearney led to Stuart Hogg, fresh from turning 21 on Monday, and Billy Twelvetrees seeing out the match at full-back and out-half respectively.
Hooker Best was back in fine throwing form. He found Evans at a 64th minute lineout before controlling the ball at the back of a ground-gaining maul and with the whitewash in sight, Reid came around from an offside position to tackle Best and referee Glen Jackson awarded a penalty try and sin-binned the offender.
The 14-man Rebels were durable in defence though and they more than held their ground. Replacement scrum half Nic Stirzaker zoomed into space on the right before Zebo tracked back to bring him down and spoil the breakaway.
Zebo, whose name was chanted quite a bit by the vocal visiting support, delighted the crowd with a superb high catch in the Lions 22 and that backhanded offload to Tuilagi which set the tourists off on the counter.
Despite Murray’s best efforts over the first hour, it looks like Ben Youngs guaranteed his place in the squad for the second Test with a stylish individual try – the Leicester clubman outstripped the cover on a clever sniping run in the 74th minute with Hoggs’ conversion completing the scoring.
Giving his reaction afterwards, O’Brien said: “We were pretty p***ed off to be honest last Tuesday night (after losiing to the Brumbies) and we wanted to put things right with a good performance, so it was very good to do that.
“We wanted to go out and work hard for each other – that was the big thing. We didn’t want to turn it into an individual thing. We all wanted to play well, but it was more about our performance.”
Collectively they did just that and the Ireland international was also encouraged by how the Lions managed the breakdown against the Rebels, a noticeable improvement in that area on their recent showings.
“It (the breakdown) is a bit of a grey area which way the refs are going to ref it. We said we’d deal with that ourselves tonight and just try and pass the ball and take a body out from whatever was in front of us, so it was a bit better certainly than last week,” he added.
TIME LINE: 16 minutes – British & Irish Lions try: Conor Murray – 0-5; conversion: Owen Farrell – 0-7; 27 mins – Melbourne Rebels penalty: missed by Jason Woodward – 0-7; 28 mins – British & Irish Lions try: Sean Maitland – 0-12; conversion: Owen Farrell – 0-14; Half-time – Melbourne Rebels 0 British & Irish Lions 14; 50 mins – British & Irish Lions try: Sean O’Brien – 0-19; conversion: Owen Farrell – 0-21; 64 mins – British & Irish Lions try: Penalty try – 0-26; conversion: Stuart Hogg – 0-28; 74 mins – British & Irish Lions try: Ben Youngs – 0-33; conversion: Stuart Hogg – 0-35; Full-time – Melbourne Rebels 0 British & Irish Lions 35
MELBOURNE REBELS: Jason Woodward; Tom English, Mitch Inman, Rory Sidey, Lachlan Mitchell; Bryce Hegarty, Luke Burgess; Nic Henderson, Ged Robinson, Laurie Weeks, Cadeyrn Neville, Hugh Pyle, Jarrod Saffy, Scott Fuglistaller, Gareth Delve (capt).
Replacements used: Luke Jones for Pyle (half-time), Cooper Vuna for Inman (52), Jordy Reid for Delve, Nic Stirzaker for Burgess (both 56 mins), Pat Leafa for Robinson, Cruze Ah Nau for Weeks, Paul Alo-Emile for Henderson (all 61). Angus Roberts for Hegarty (72).
BRITISH & IRISH LIONS: Rob Kearney (Leinster/Ireland); Sean Maitland (Glasgow Warriors/Scotland), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers/England), Brad Barritt (Saracens/England), Simon Zebo (Munster/Ireland); Owen Farrell (Saracens/England), Conor Murray (Munster/Ireland); Ryan Grant (Glasgow Warriors/Scotland), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys/Wales), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers/England), Richie Gray (Scotland), Ian Evans (Ospreys/Wales), Dan Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons/Wales) (capt), Sean O’Brien (Leinster/Ireland), Toby Faletau (Newport Gwent Dragons/Wales).
Replacements used: Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester/England) for Barritt (33-40+1 mins, blood sub), Stuart Hogg (Glasgow Warriors/Scotland) for Farrell (52), Rory Best (Ulster/Ireland) for Hibbard, Tom Court (Ulster/Ireland) for Grant, Matt Stevens (Saracens/England) for Cole, Justin Tipuric (Ospreys/Wales) for O’Brien (all 56), Twelvetrees for Kearney (61), Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England) for Murray (64), Tom Croft (Leicester Tigers/England) for Lydiate (66).
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)