Adam Ashley-Cooper’s 76th minute suckerpunch try broke the Lions hearts, with Leigh Halfpenny’s injury time attempt dropping short of the posts.
It means that the Test series will go down to the wire in Sydney next weekend, the final chapter in an enthralling, brutal tour that has left the nerves of both sets of supporters in shreds.
An opening half dominated by the scrum and interpretation of referee Craig Joubert was at the core of an excruciatingly tense first half – Leigh Halfpenny and Leali’ifano finding themselves in a shootout.
The suffocating tension under the Etihad Stadium roof saw both sides make plenty of mistakes in the opening quarter.
There were however obvious strengths – the Lions rolling maul, and the Australian scrum as Genia gradually began to control the tempo of the match.
Halfpenny fell short with his first penalty attempt, hitting the crossbar after good work from Warburton at the breakdown with the Lions free of the constraints placed upon the ruck area under Chris Pollock’s officiating in Brisbane.
Bold leadership from Warburton saw the Lions unleash two successive lineout drives on the Wallaby line, a 12-man maul on the second drive bringing a penalty advantage. Halfpenny this time made no mistake.
Early struggles for Mako Vunipola at the scrum handed the Wallabies their first points, Ben Alexander winning the opening exchange for Leali’ifano to score his first points in an Australian jersey.
Another scrum penalty, again against Vunipola, turned a Lions problem into a calamity as the loosehead’s struggles continued but Australia were not beyond conceding a penalty at the scrum themselves – Adam Jones splintering the front row to result in Halfpenny’s second penalty and a tied scoreboard at 6-6 after 27 minutes.
Pressure does funny things even to experienced Test players as the Lions lineout wobbled and James O’Connor dropped a simple pass. Scrums though persisted to dictate the match – Halfpenny’s third penalty coming as the Wallaby pack creaked and turned.
A lazy offside penalty against Dan Lydiate saw Leali’ifano level things up a 9-9 but the Lions had the final say of the half. North had been subdued throughout the opening 40 but a burst created the penalty chance for Halfpenny to put the Lions ahead again. 12-9 at half-time.
A golden wall repelled the Lions in the opening minutes of the second half held firm but the action was breathless – neither side adding points as Warburton grew into the role of a winning Lions captain.
Utterly draining and breathless stuff from both sides as the game opened up turned the Etihad into a cauldron of screams.
Warburton was enormous, writing his way into Lions folklore as poor execution from both sides hindered their attacks and saw the total number of scrums rise into double figures.
Australia threw everything at the tourists, enjoying more possession and working the short side, but it came at a price. North produced an act of incredible physicality to carry Folau on his back, but landed on his head as a result to the concern of every fan in a red shirt.
The introduction of Dan Cole and Richard Hibbard gave the Lions impetus in battle upfront, leading Halfpenny to slot his most remarkable kick of all from 48 metres out.
Making half the number of tackles as the visitors, the Wallabies continued to choke – Beale this time the culprit with numbers on his outside as they chased the game.
They nearly came so close. Folau’s step undid the Lions in Brisbane and it nearly had them again, instead resulting in a five-metre Wallaby scrum under the Lions posts, from which Folau was unable to gather O’Connor’s clever inside pass.
Australia’s persistence though was undeniable. With the space on the outside to left, O’Connor sucked in the drift and unleashed Ashley-Cooper through the gap for the try. It was a suckerpunch.
It wasn’t over. A loose kick from O’Connor after the pass came back into his 22 handed Hibbard and the Lions a chance to set up the platform for the win. His accuracy, as so often on this tour, was sorely absent.
There was one last chance for Halfpenny, a long-range attempt from just on the wrong side of half way. But as with Beale in Brisbane, it was not to be Halfpenny’s night in Melbourne. The Wallabies stay alive. All eyes on Sydney.