Woodward hails ‘invincible’ Itoje after Wellington win

The 22-year-old justified Warren Gatland’s decision to start him in Wellington, delivering a combative performance that checked the All Blacks’ attacking intent and helped drive the Lions forward to level the three-match series at 1-1.

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“He was immense from start to finish and the feeling of invincibility a young tyro like the England lock brings to proceedings should not be underestimated,” Woodward wrote in the Mail on Sunday of a player who did not start the first test.

“It wouldn’t occur to him for a second that New Zealand were unbeatable. He doesn’t really understand the concept of defeat and long may that last.

“No wonder the Lions fans were chanting his name football-style afterwards. There were shades of (Cristiano) Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi in their worship of the man.”

While many pundits bemoaned a high penalty count for the visitors, former Lion Austin Healey said it was an inevitable price to pay for taking the match to New Zealand, who had Sonny Bill Williams sent off for a shoulder charge after 25 minutes.

“Conceding 13 penalties is not in the manual of how to win a test match,” Healey wrote in the Sunday Telegraph. “But the point was the Lions were prepared to play right on the edge rather than let the All Blacks march all over them.

“Of course you would like the penalty count to come down but if anything, the Lions need to ramp up the aggression even further.”

Former England flanker Lawrence Dallaglio said the victory was based on an astonishing display of “heart and nerve”, and saluted Gatland for keeping faith with creative duo Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell even as the clock ticked down.

“‘Finishers’ has become a popular term in rugby but sometimes it pays to stick with your starters — the reason why you go with them from kick-off, after all, is because they are your best players,” he wrote in the Sunday Times.

Most commentators predicted a “Blacklash” in next week’s decisive test at Eden Park, although former Ireland wing Shane Horgan believes the series may hinge on how New Zealand react to the pressure of facing a possible series defeat.

“(Accuracy and composure) will be in short supply in New Zealand’s media and fans this week; the Lions will pray this will transmit to their team,” he wrote in the Sunday Times.

(Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by John O’Brien)

Suicide car bomber chased by security forces kills 18 people in central Damascus

A suicide car bomber pursued by security forces blew himself up in eastern Damascus on Sunday, with a monitor reporting 18 killed in the deadliest attack to hit the Syrian capital in months.

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Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said security forces intercepted three car bombers on their way into the city early on Sunday morning.

State television said two of the vehicles were blown up on the outskirts of the city.

A third managed to reach the eastern Tahrir Square district, where he was surrounded but able to detonate a bomb.

The Observatory, a Britain-based monitor, said 18 people were killed in the bombing, including at least seven members of pro-regime security forces and two civilians. It had not identified the remaining victims. 

Syrian state news agency SANA quoted an interior ministry statement as saying two of the vehicles had been “destroyed” at a roundabout on the road to the city’s airport. 

The driver of the third blew himself up while being pursued, it said, “killing a number of civilians, injuring others, and causing material damage to public and private properties.”

A series of car bomb explosions hit the Syrian capital on Sunday, including a suicide attacker who blew himself up after being surrounded by security forces.SANA

Extensive damage

An AFP correspondent at Tahrir Square saw extensive damage to nearby buildings. Two bombed-out cars were visible to one side of the square, which was strewn with debris.

A woman was crying in an apartment near the site of the attack. Her balcony had collapsed and the living room was a mess of broken glass and shattered masonry, with pictures and curtains strewn across the floor. 

The woman said her daughter had been taken to hospital after being injured by flying glass.

Tahrir Square resident Mohammad Tinawi told AFP that he had heard “gunfire at around 6:00am (0300 GMT), then an explosion which smashed the glass of houses in the neighbourhood.”

He said he had seen Red Crescent volunteers treating two wounded soldiers. A shopkeeper confirmed that the explosion had gone off at around 6:00 am.

Damascus has been spared the large-scale battles that have devastated other major Syrian cities during the country’s six-year civil war.

But dozens of people have been killed in bombings, particularly on the outskirts of the capital.

In mid-March, bomb attacks on a courthouse and restaurant in central Damascus killed 32 people. That rare assault in the heart of the city, which remains under government control, was claimed by the Islamic State group. 

That came days after two explosions that left 74 dead in the capital’s Old City and were claimed by the Tahrir al-Sham coalition led by the jihadist Fateh al-Sham Front.

Battlefronts around Damascus have calmed since a May deal that saw opposition fighters withdraw from several neighbourhoods, along with a separate agreement on “de-escalation” zones – including one in a rebel stronghold just outside the capital.

Syria’s conflict broke out with anti-government protests in 2011, but has since evolved into a multi-front war that has killed more than 320,000 people.

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Lions flanker O’Brien cleared to play third test

O’Brien was cited after television footage showed his forearm clearly made contact with the face of All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo as the Irish loose forward joined a tackle in the 59th minute of the match at Wellington Regional Stadium.

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Naholo was taken from the pitch for a concussion test, which he failed, forcing his replacement. Referee Jerome Garces, who had sin-binned Lions prop Mako Vunipola minutes before, took no action on the pitch.

The Ireland flanker was charged by citing commissioner Scott Nowland after the game but New Zealand Rugby (NZR) said on Sunday he had been cleared.

“Having conducted a detailed review of all the evidence available, including all video footage and additional evidence from the player and submissions from his legal representative Max Duthie, the Independent Judicial Committee dismissed the citing complaint,” NZR said in a statement.

The committee had earlier banned All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams for four weeks after he was shown a red card for a shoulder charge on Anthony Watson in the 25th minute of the match.

O’Brien has played both tests for the Lions on this tour and his contribution in the second test had earlier been praised by assistant coach Graham Rowntree who described him as ‘outstanding’ and the benchmark for the team’s performance.

“Right to the end of the game he is the barometer for us with his energy,” Rowntree said. “His aggression and ball pressure, his tackling, his carrying. I think he has been outstanding.”

Lions coach Warren Gatland said he was pleased with the committee’s decision, while O’Brien said: “Firstly, I hope Waisake is okay. I’d like to thank the panel for carefully considering the case.”

(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Additional reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Clare Fallon)

Saints in finals mix after ending hoodoo

They’ve broken their Perth hoodoo and are sitting a game inside the top eight, but St Kilda coach Alan Richardson isn’t daring to dream about finals action just yet.

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The Saints ended their six-match losing streak in Perth with a thrilling nine-point win over Fremantle at Domain Stadium on Sunday.

Consecutive wins over North Melbourne, Gold Coast, and Fremantle have improved St Kilda’s record to 8-6 heading into Saturday night’s crunch clash with Richmond at Etihad Stadium.

But with only one top-eight scalp to their name this season – a shock win over GWS in round seven – the Saints aren’t getting carried away just yet.

Before Sunday’s win in Perth, St Kilda had lost 25 of their past 28 matches outside of Victoria.

Now they have won two of their past three games outside of Victoria, boosting Richardson’s hopes that they are becoming a team that can start winning regularly on the road.

The next five weeks could make of break St Kilda’s finals hopes.

After taking on the in-form Tigers, St Kilda face Essendon, Sydney (SCG), Port Adelaide (Adelaide Oval) and West Coast.

“I won’t be focusing on the next five weeks, nor will our players,” Richardson said.

“We have Maddie’s Match against the Tigers. It’s going to be a really big game for our club.

“We need to play really strong. We know the Tigers are playing terrific footy.”

The Saints face a nervous wait to see if star midfielder Jack Steven is suspended for his punch to Hayden Ballantyne’s mid-riff.

Defender Sam Gilbert is also in doubt for the Tigers clash after being concussed against Fremantle.

Gilbert was stretchered off after his head was driven into the turf by a lingering tackle from Fremantle’s Cameron McCarthy.

Richardson paid tribute to Jack Steele, comparing him to St Kilda great Lenny Hayes after the midfielder laid 17 tackles against Fremantle.

“He comes from a rugby state. He’s a Canberra boy and his tackles are real tackles,” Richardson said.

“When he tackles, they stay in the tackle. Very rarely do they get rid of the footy. He’s a good size.”

Sam Burgess slaps down sin-binning

South Sydney skipper Sam Burgess has taken a subtle dig at the NRL referees and rule book following his sin-binning in his side’s 42-14 trouncing of Penrith on Sunday.

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In the wash up, Burgess’ sin-binning proved a turning point and seemingly lit a fire under his teammates.

The Englishman was marched after he and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak engaged in what could only be described as a slapping match in which neither connected with any force.

After Nathan Cleary dived on a loose ball, Burgess came in over the top, leading with his shoulder in a legal tackle.

However the Penrith half’s teammates took exception and rushed from all corners of the field, setting off an all-in push-and-shove.

Burgess and Watene-Zelezniak were each sent to cool off for 10 minutes for striking under the NRL’s new anti-slap rules.

In their absence, Panthers captain Matt Moylan threw a wild cut-out pass to no one with Alex Johnston picking up the spoils and racing 90 metres for the first of the Rabbitohs’ seven tries.

Had Watene-Zelezniak been on the field, he would have likely been in a position to dive on the loose ball.

Asked if he was shocked to be sin-binned, Burgess said: “Were you?

“I guess it’s the game we play at the moment.

“I wouldn’t have pushed back if someone hadn’t have run in from 15 metres.

“It’s the rules and the game that we play these days. You’ve just got to wear it. I’m certainly disappointed.”

He also claimed he never connected with the Panthers winger.

“In super slow mo it didn’t look like it, did it? You can’t do anything at the moment,” Burgess said.

When Souths coach Michael Maguire was asked whether the episode was embarrassing, he said: “You just said it.”

“It is the rules as Sammy spoke about.

“The game’s tried to tidy up a lot of that area. I’m not sure that was worth 10.”