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.”

Gavrilova cautious going into Wimbledon

Having learnt the hard way not to set lofty grand slam goals, Daria Gavrilova has modest hopes for Wimbledon.

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Left shattered after suffering a first-round French Open exit last month, Australia’s new No.1 says winning one match on London’s hallowed lawns will be a pass mark.

The 23-year-old is up against dangerous Croatian qualifier Petra Martic on Tuesday and is refusing to take comfort in her first-time seeding at the All England Club.

“Baby steps this year,” Gavrilova said.

“I’ve been heartbroken a few times at slams, losing first round.

“My biggest goal is to finally get through first round. Actually I did here last year.

“It’s always tough to play first round of slams. It’s a different pressure. I’ll give it my best chance again.”

In reality, despite downplaying her prospects, Friday’s draw presented Gavrilova with a golden opportunity to reach the second week.

The first higher-ranked player she is projected to meet is Russian 16th seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the third round, a rival just five places above her.

“I won’t go and look too far ahead,” Gavrilova said.

“I really believed that I could do really well there (at the French), at least making the second week.

“But, to be honest, the circumstances. I was really tired from playing so much tennis.

“I’m only in my second consistent year on the tour so I’m still learning a lot.”

The former world junior No.1 says she is happy with her grasscourt build-up.

“I’ve had a pretty good few weeks, played some pretty good tennis on the grass, so I’m ready to go,” Gavrilova said.

Victory would set up a second-round clash on Thursday with either Risa Ozaki of Japan or Czech Denisa Allertova.

We can still avoid spoon: Knights

Newcastle remain confident they can still avoid a third consecutive NRL wooden spoon, despite being trampled 33-12 by the Wests Tigers on Sunday.

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The loss dropped the Knights below the Tigers at the bottom of the ladder, and they now need at least two wins from their final seven games to avoid last place.

Billed by players as their grand final, the Knights turned in their worst performance of the season as they completed just 68 per cent of their sets and went to the break down 20-0, from which they never recovered.

The Knights were unlucky to be denied two tries either side of halftime – one from a questionable forward pass call – but they were still completely outplayed by the Tigers.

When asked on Sunday whether they could still avoid the spoon, forward Jamie Buhrer was forthright in his response.

“Of course,” Buhrer said.

“There have been plenty of games we’ve played this year we feel we could have won.”

“I’m certainly confident we can get some wins up over the back half of the year, but we’ve got to be a lot better than that.”

The Knights have a winnable game next week against Canterbury, who will be without three State of Origin players as well as captain James Graham (neck) and lock Greg Eastwood (knee).

They also have the warriors in Newcastle, who have won just one game in Australia this year.

Meanwhile coach Nathan Brown refused to blame halfback Trent Hodkinson, who had an unhappy return to first grade after being dropped to NSW Cup for two months.

Nathan Ross was also disappointing in his second game at fullback, as Brown questioned whether the changes in the spine could have affected the team’s attack.

“Our attack struggled,” Brown said.

“There were some blokes in key positions whose performances really fluctuated a lot which probably didn’t help.

“It was clearly our worst attacking performance for a long time. Why that was? You can’t just blame that one player.”

The loss could have come at a cost for the Knights, after winger Ken Sio injured his shoulder and did not return.

Tough questions await Collingwood in AFL

Many questions remain for Collingwood after their AFL finals hopes were all but extinguished with a 24-point loss to Hawthorn.

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Are the Magpies a good enough team to make the finals? Can they do it without significant list changes?

And is Nathan Buckley the right man for the job?

A top-eight finish is increasingly unlikely this season, with Sunday’s 18.10 (118) to 14.10 (94) defeat to Hawthorn at the MCG condemning the Magpies to the bottom four with a 5-9 record.

The Pies have a horror run to end the season with five of their remaining eight games coming against current top-eight sides.

Buckley’s post-game message was clear: this is a developing side that deserves time to reach its potential.

The Pies coach – who earlier in the year linked his survival to the Pies making the finals – reeled off the names of a dozen young regulars who had yet to reach their prime.

“All of those players will improve, and they all have to improve for us to improve as a team – then 5-9 turns into 9-5,” Buckley said.

“The reality is we are a side coming from a fair way back, with youth, to try and grow and develop.

“We haven’t met expectations in regards to our progress and our growth. Do we just pack up, do we just give up on it?

“Maybe this is part of the journey they need to go through to realise how tough the comp is, and how quickly 5-9 can come about when they don’t take their chances.”

Former Melbourne coach Paul Roos on Sunday took aim at the Magpies’ “appalling” list management in recent seasons.

The decision to hand big deals to injury-prone midfielder Daniel Wells and fringe forward Chris Mayne during the off-season raised eyebrows.

However, two of the Magpies’ best players this year – midfielder Adam Treloar and half-back flanker Jeremy Howe – both arrived via trades,

Jordan De Goey’s best-afield performance against the Hawks meanwhile suggests there’s cause for optimism about the next generation.

But the key question remains whether the Pies will stick with Buckley if they’re unable to pull off a miracle and go a fourth consecutive season without making the finals.

Johnston blames trainer for missed record

South Sydney flyer Alex Johnston has revealed a team trainer was responsible after he narrowly missed out on a club record six-try haul in their demolition of Penrith on Sunday.

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Johnston put in one of the most memorable individual performances of the NRL season as he ran in five tries in the seven-tries-to-two rout.

He fell agonisingly short of setting a new record for the foundation club after on several occasions missing out on a sixth four-pointer.

“They were looking for me,” Johnston said cheekily.

“There was one time when our trainer came on, Benny Gardiner is his name. I want to quote his name because he told me to go to the middle to look for it and the ball went out to where it should have been and I wasn’t there.

“I’m a bit off him at the moment.”

On another occasion Johnston was denied by the video referees after Tyrell Fuimaono knocked on in the lead up.

Had he crossed for a sixth, he would have been the first player to achieve the feat in a premiership match since Newtown’s Jack Troy in 1950.

Instead he will have to be satisfied with sharing the Rabbitohs club record with Nathan Merritt, Eric Sladden, Ian Moir, Johnny Graves, Don Manson, Alan Quinlivan and Harold Horder.

“I didn’t know if it was a record or anything,” Johston said.

“I was just pumped, I scored five, I was keeping count all game.

“I was like ‘come on, pass it to me, one more, one more, give me one more’. To equal the club record, Merritt scored five as well, is pretty special.”

The try-scoring rampage took his season tally to 15 and moved him ahead of Canberra’s Jordan Rapana and Melbourne’s Suliasi Vunivalu to the top of the competition try-scorer list.

He said it was his biggest bag of tries since he first strapped on a pair of boots 13 years ago.

“Not since under 9s, my first year playing,” he said when asked if he’d ever scored five.

“Back then I used to run around everyone, it was pretty easy.

“They made it easy for me out there tonight, the boys, just giving me some good ball.”

SCORING A HANDFUL BAG

Five try hauls by South Sydney players:

* Alex Johnston v Penrith, ANZ Stadium, Round 17, 2017

* Nathan Merritt v Parramatta, ANZ Stadium, Round 22, 2011

* Eric Sladden v Parramatta, Cumberland Oval, Round 16, 1957

* Ian Moir v Parramatta, Redfern Oval, Round 7, 1957

* Johnny Graves v Eastern Suburbs, Redfern Oval, Round 14, 1949

* Don Manson v University, Sports Ground, Round 1, 1937

* Alan Quinlivan v University, Earl Park, Roundd 9, 1936

* Harold Horder v North Sydney, RAS Sydney Showground, Round 12, 1917

* Harold Horder v North Sydney, RAS Sydney Showground, Round 5, 1917

Queensland has no issue with DCE: Cronk

Queensland halfback Cooper Cronk insists there are no issues between Daly Cherry-Evans and senior members of the Maroons team.

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Cherry-Evans was one of three players to assert their push for the Maroons No.6 jersey in the last round of NRL before Queensland name their side for next week’s decider.

After Cameron Munster starred in Melbourne’s 42-12 win over Brisbane on Friday night, Cherry-Evans responded with two try assists in Manly’s come-from-behind 26-22 victory over the Warriors in Perth.

Maroons utility Michael Morgan also scored twice in North Queensland’s 31-18 win over Canberra, as the race to replace Johnathan Thurston surely became a three-way battle.

Cherry-Evans’ career-best form has piloted him into contention after Queensland coach Kevin Walters originally failed to name him as a possible replacement for Thurston.

The Maroons mentor was later forced to deny reports the Manly captain could be overlooked because he doesn’t get along with Maroons teammates.

Cronk became the latest to rubbish those suggestions on Saturday night.

“I’m a little bit disappointed with the articles that have been written about Daly,” he told Fox Sports

“All the senior players have got a great working relationship on and off the field with him.

“He’s been part of the Queensland set-up before and he’s contributed off that bench role on a number of occasions.”

Cherry-Evans’ performance came after Queensland selector Darren Lockyer wrote in a column on Saturday he required a man-of-the-match performance to give his best chance of reclaiming his Origin jersey.

The 28-year-old has lost both games he has started for the Maroons, but Lockyer insisted his cards had not been marked by the selectors.

Cronk said he believes the Manly No.7 is a different player to the one who last played Origin in 2015.

“He’s taken his game to another level this year, he’s playing career-best football,” Cronk said.

It is possible all three could work their way into the Maroons’ 17-man squad when it is announced on Monday.

Walters has previously floated the idea of playing Munster at centre for the injured Darius Boyd, which could leave Morgan and Cherry-Evans to fill the five-eighth and bench utility roles.