The 6th of July was the day that the Lions truly roared. Over 83,000 spectators watched as the game widely predicted to be as close as the previous two tests turned out to be a walkover for the men in red. This victory clinched the series for the Lions, and they have now got a 16-year monkey off their backs. Northern Hemisphere rugby fans will now be looking forward to the 2017 tour of New Zealand with relish rather than a sense of foreboding.
In Gatland they doubted
Much of the buildup preceding the test centred upon Warren Gatland’s decision to axe Irish centre Brian O’Driscoll and select 10 Welshmen in his starting line up. As the New Zealander himself said, some of the comments were personal and vitriolic, and much of what the media said – particularly words from Ian Robertson, Keith Wood and Austin Healey – left a bad taste in my mouth.
Following the victory, it was quite emotional to see the Gatland press conference, who absolutely and defiantly didn’t want to say ‘I told you so’. He has clearly been hurt by some of the criticism, and it is my opinion that the press, pundits and indeed the public need to learn from this.
As far as the O’Driscoll omission is concerned, I’ve already had my two penneth worth. It was a rugby decision, and those are really the only kinds of decisions that rugby coaches should be making: particularly when it is a Lions series at stake. Brian O’Driscoll was not the best 13 available, so he shouldn’t have been selected at 13. Brian O’Driscoll was not the best impact sub available, so he shouldn’t have been on the bench. It’s quite simple really, but yet Gatland’s decision nonetheless resulted in serious condemnation. Until we are able to leave the sentimentality behind, the Northern Hemisphere are always going to lag behind the South, and sadly this situation was just another confirmation of how far behind we are; not necessarily in terms of ability, but in dealing with the ruthless side of the game.
Is selecting 10 Welshmen a problem? In my view, absolutely not. The Lions mantra is ‘4 Nations 1 Team’ and given that we had tries from English, Irish and Welsh players on Saturday, I’d suggest that the rugby stayed perfectly in line with that mantra. In any case, because of their small playing pool, it is relatively rare to see a Scottish player start a Lions test, but yet you don’t usually hear the same people criticising Gatland calling for 3.75 players from each nation.
The game itself
The game was a superb spectacle, although I am sure the second half made quite grim viewing for the Australian. The Lions set their stall out with a series of powerful scrums and carries from their forwards, with Leigh Halfpenny kicking the points, and from the word go it looked like the Lions were up for this. Australia were offered brief respite after an O’Connor jink just before half time, but one must wonder what might have been if Horwill had elected to kick some of those penalties on offer while Australia were in the ascendency.
Australia came out of the blocks in the second half, and chipped away at the Lions score, until there were only 3 points in it. The rest is history. The Lions found a sixth gear, and motored away to a comfortable and outstanding victory. Ultimate credit must go to Gatland for a great selection, an inspired selection of replacements and for getting the job done whilst scoring 4 tries.
Who has stood out on tour?
The team that took to the field were immense to a man, and therefore it’s difficult to compartmentalise which players were the best. Leigh Halfpenny and Alun-Wyn Jones played like men possessed, the latter with the massive burden of captaincy on his shoulders. The tour has seen some standouts though, so it’s worth going through who has enhanced their reputation via their involvement in Australia
Stuart Hogg: Taken as a reserve fullback, and ended up playing as a reserve flyhalf, Hogg had a good tour. It was always unlikely he was going to make the test team, but he slotted into the halfback position whenever the Lions needed him to. A young man, he’ll go on another tour, and if Scotland heed Hogg’s performances at 10, there’s every chance he could line up with that number on his back in 4 years time.
Alex Corbisiero: Corbisiero didn’t even make the initial squad, and was flown out after injuries to Cian Healy and Gethin Jenkins; but what an impact the loosehead made. Mako Vunipola as a livewire around the field, but Corbisiero brought solidity to the scrum, and this ended up being one of the deciding factors of the tour.
Geoff Parling: Many believed Parling was destined for the midweek team, but he surprised everyone by starting two tests. His tap tackle to prevent an almost certain Australian try will go down in Lions folklore, and hats must go off to the English lock whose work rate was phenomenal throughout the tour.
Sean O’Brien: Prior to Sam Warburton’s injury, O’Brien could have been forgiven for thinking that his involvement in the tour was over, but once the skipper was ruled out of the deciding test, O’Brien came back into contention and played a blinder in Sydney. Thought by many to lack the finesse to play on the openside, he proved everyone wrong with some classic ‘over the ball’ work at the breakdown.
Jonathan Sexton: Despite a few defensive lapses in the 3rd test, Sexton was impeccable all tour, and carved his name into the shirt for all 3 tests. Sexton is a very assured rugby player, he can pass, run and kick, and runs the game well. Most likely will return to the Lions scene in 4 years time.
Conor Murray: Perhaps one of the biggest shocks of the tour, Murray probably started as 3rd choice scrumhalf behind Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs, and returned home as arguably the 1st choice. Murray was immense all tour, and kept a cool head in Sydney with the series on the line.
Adam Jones: The scrum was the foundation for the series win in Sydney, and although Corbisiero brought a lot of stability, any loosehead will find life a lot easier if it is Adam Jones on the other side of the scrum. The best tighthead in the world, Jones will go down in history as one of the finest scrummagers of his generation, and quite rightly now has a Lions series win to add to his CV.
Alun-Wyn Jones: The outstanding lock on tour, Jones was really thrown in the deep end for the 3rd test. Most expected O’Driscoll to take over the captaincy from the injured Warburton, but instead it was the 27-year old who took over the mantle; meaning that the Swansea born second row not only had to deal with the pressure of trying to steer the Lions to victory for the first time in 16 years, but was also dealing with the backlash from many who felt he was the wrong choice. Gatland’s faith in the big man was justified, and Jones will now go down in British rugby folklore as a winning Lions captain.
Toby Faletau: Overlooked for the first two tests, Faletau hit the ground running in Sydney and produced an astounding performance in the back row including a crucial turnover under his own posts. The Welshman should really have been picked ahead of Heaslip from the word go, but Gatland made the right decision when it mattered.
Jonathan Davies: Davies was under a huge amount of pressure after being preferred to O’Driscoll and he delivered – big time. He has matured in a truly world-class centre, and was one of the players of the tour.
George North: North set the tour alight with an incredible solo try in the 1st test, and delighted fans with an assault on Israel Folau in the 2nd in which he picked up the winger and ran along with him strewn over his shoulder. North is only 21, and will certainly feature in a Lions tour again; a moment the whole rugby world will look forward to.
Leigh Halfpenny: Quite simply, the man of the series. Many are now talking about Halfpenny as a contender for World Player of the Year, and on the evidence of this summer it’s very hard to disagree with that assessment. His pinpoint goalkicking was the difference in the 1st test; while it kept the Lions in the 2nd despite his last minute miss. His kicking was first class in the 3rd, but it was his running ability that turned the tie. Halfpenny is an asset to the British Isles, and the fact that two outstanding 15s in Kearney and Hogg weren’t considered, tells you everything you need to know about the young Welshman.
Gatland will now return to Wales and begin his preparation for the 2015 World Cup. Given the high density of Welshman in the Lions squad and winning team, they will certainly be seen as contenders for the Webb Ellis trophy, and a group containing them, Australia and England is a truly mouthwatering prospect. The other home nations will regroup too; ready to do battle with the Southern Hemisphere in the Autumn Internationals. The win over Australia will give all the Lions players that extra bit of belief that they can beat the South; and this can only make for some more scintillating and exciting rugby. Bring it on.