By Charlie Morgan
SO IN the end it was a pair of props and a rampant last twenty minutes that prised two balanced outfits apart, the Lions power game coming to the fore in the final stages of a truly enthralling series. But who gets the nod in a combined XV to take on all-comers? As three (well, two-and-a-half) tight tussles suggest, it is a fairly even split.
15. Leigh Halfpenny
A total no-brainer to start with, Halfpenny’s record haul of 49 points – surpassing that of his mentor Neil Jenkins in 1997 – only tells part of a pretty special story. Deadly from the tee, the full back also excelled positionally, something accentuated by the ease with which he fielded Will Genia’s clearance during the third Test before embarking on a scything run to set up George North. He demonstrated typical disregard for his body when required in defence over the course of series, too. Kurtley Beale’s attacking verve gave him a shout, but he was up against an inspired opponent.
14. Israel Folau
‘Freakish’ seems to have been the adjective of choice regarding Folau ever since his baby steps in rugby league and the confidence with which the 24 year-old made a first foray into union at Test level confirmed his otherworldly ability. A superb second score that combined incredible strength and grace during the first Test stands out, but Folau was threatening with just about every touch. Australia missed him when a hamstring problem ended his involvement, despite the searing pace of replacement Jesse Mogg.
13. Adam Ashley-Cooper
One horror pass into the clutches of Sean O’Brien at ANZ Stadium aside, Ashley-Cooper was extremely plucky. Epitomising the Wallaby way – fighting furiously for everything – his harrying presence defined how much more his team valued possession in the second Test and that last-gasp try deserves credit for the deadly line that made it. He defied a shoulder injury to impress in the opener against Brian O’Driscoll too, although was outplayed by Jonathan Davies at the weekend.
12. Christian Leali’ifano
Perhaps a controversial pick to secure an all-gold midfield, but nobody really stamped their authority here – Davies very much looked a man out of position and Jamie Roberts was quiet before bursting away for a fine seven-pointer. For bouncing back from a first-minute knockout on debut, though, Leali’fano merits plenty of praise. Nailed a nerveless conversion in Melbourne to send the series to the wire, and defended a crowded channel admirably on the back foot in Sydney until a tired last quarter.
11. George North
A simply stunning Brisbane try and an equally amazing fireman’s carry on Folau a week later provided two of the truly iconic moments of the sporting summer, while a second score on Saturday from Halfpenny’s slicing kick-return killed the contest off. North arrived in Australia with a big reputation and enhanced it. One blemish in 240 minutes – a failed blitz late in the second Test – could not stop his ascent to the status of bona fide world-beater. Northampton Saints have got themselves a diamond.
10. Johnny Sexton
Far from perfect – Sexton mixed sparks of decisive, innovative play with a couple of odder decisions and uncharacteristic defensive lapses – but the Irishman had enough in his tank to oust James O’Connor, who is unlikely to see his country’s No 10 jersey again without Robbie Deans holding the reins. Might have been stifled by Warren Gatland’s round-the-corner commitment, but didn’t seem to care as he celebrated with Daniel Craig under the Sydney stars.
9. Will Genia
The elementary spill from Sexton’s kick-off that set the tone for Saturday shocked the world, and with good reason – Genia errors are remarkably rare. The best scrum-half on the planet with daylight sitting second, he remains terrifying around the fringes and consistently able to ignite a try-scoring move from anywhere on the field. Mobilised his forwards fantastically throughout, firing the likes of Benn Robinson and Stephen Moore over the gain-line whenever he pleased – an unparalleled general.
1. Alex Corbisiero
The finale could well have been a dead rubber if Corbisiero’s calf had allowed him to play in Melbourne. Good in the first Test and phenomenal in the third, he was heralded by Adam Jones as “unbelievable”. If a couple of trundles in the loose were a nice bonus, his set-piece technique was game-changing as the scrum once more pierced Australia’s traditional Achilles heel. Corbisiero simply bullied Ben Alexander to sap all of the Wallabies’ momentum.
2. Stephen Moore
Moore must take some responsibility for how his front row buckled so badly in Sydney, but hit his jumpers unerringly at lineout-time and offered mighty industry in a pair of 80-minute shifts at the Suncorp and Etihad Stadiums. He brought 80 caps of mongrel and experience to the party, buoying his team-mates and spoiling the tourists at close-quarters. Worthy mentions for Tom Youngs and Richard Hibbard, both tough as teak and well at home in the Test cauldron.
3. Adam Jones
Worth each of his 120 kilograms of weight in gold, Jones is a pillar of power and consistency who tortured Robinson at will and came up with the defining penalty of the tour when he popped the Australian loosehead after 50 minutes of the third Test as the hosts were circling like vultures at just 19-16 down. It speaks volumes that there were synchronised calls from all corners of Britain and Ireland compelling Gatland to keep him on longer rather than carry out pre-planned substitutions.
4. Alun-Wyn Jones
Slightly subdued in the early stages of this trip before exploding into life against the Waratahs and maintaining that heady level in the environment he adores – Test match rugby. An imposing physical specimen, Jones’ awesome athleticism allowed him to rack up an incredible 12 carries in the decider, topping the tackle-count as well. He also filled the considerable leadership void left by Paul O’Connell, Sam Warburton and Brian O’Driscoll. He was that good.
5. James Horwill
Well, it might get awkward in the boiler-room. But Lions tours are not complete without villains, and Australia’s captain did an admirably irritating job over the three weeks. Of course that was compounded by the clumsy contact with Jones’s face – and the subsequent farce masquerading as a disciplinary process – but Horwill also left it all on the pitch every time. A sturdy lineout option, a tireless tackler and a burly carrier, he offered the lot. If he had kept his head instead of spurning Leali’ifano’s tee at the weekend, who knows?
6. Ben Mowen
Assured and abrasive in equal measure, this was as impressive an introduction to international sport as you will ever see. Shackled Mike Phillips and freed Folau for his second in Brisbane to mark an immense debut but also called the lineouts and worked relentlessly throughout the series. Dan Lydiate did what he says on the tin brilliantly – namely tackling his ankle strapping off – but Mowen’s beginning was so auspicious that Ewen McKenzie would do well to build a pack around the level-headed Brumbie.
7. Sam Warburton
This was a tough one, as Warburton’s best performance – a sparkling 66 minutes in Melbourne – saw him end up on the losing side after Michael Hooper profited from his torn hamstring to haul Australia onto the front foot in the final stages. That hour and a bit from the Lions skipper was fantastic, though, running the breakdown and keeping referee Craig Joubert in his pocket. He was also marginally better than Hooper at Suncorp, despite Chris Pollock’s abject interpretation of the ruck area.
8. Toby Faletau
Only needed 80 minutes to take this accolade, but is well worth his spot after taking the decider by storm. Brute strength was deadly at the base of such a solid scrum platform, but lineout ability and a couple of timely turnovers rendered his omission from the first two Tests quite ridiculous. Showed up the pedestrian Wycliff Palu and, at just 22, can set his sights on a 2017 siege of New Zealand.