By Paul Williams
A definitive performance.
THE LIONS secured their first series win in 16 years, with a storming 41 -16 win over the Wallabies in Sydney. During the previous nine fixtures the Lions had, on occasions, dominated the scrum, the breakdown and the gainline. However, these positives often occurred sporadically, and rarely in the same game. In the Third Test the core skills, set piece and every single member of the squad executed in unison and yielded a truly memorable performance. The Lions’ scrum was devastating – the introduction of Richard Hibbard and Alex Corbisiero produced the sort of mismatch usually reserved for schoolboy rugby.
The backrow of Toby Faletau, Dan Lydiate and Sean O’Brien was a model of modern backrow play – groundwork fused with heavy ball carrying and double digit tackle counts. Jamie Roberts controlled the 12 channel from first phase possession, Tommy Bowe ran wide, smooth angles and decoys in the 13 channel and Jon Davies’ stole his critics tongues. Jonathan Sexton executed an array of accurate tactical kicks. Alun Wyn Jones played the finest game of his career, ably assisted by Geoff Parling, and Leigh Halfpenny became Man of the Series. Much was made of this 10 man, ‘Welsh’ Lions team; but this was a 23-man, thoroughly British and Irish performance.
No contest at the scrum
The Lions’ scrum decided the third Test. The introduction of Alex Corbisiero and Richard Hibbard created a level of scrum dominance rarely seen in a tier one fixture – in the 10th minute Hibbard exerted so much pressure in the scrum that he passed out. There were no illegal wheels, or angled drives, this was ‘straight-backed,’ straight forward power that helped create a 16 point differential in 25 minutes. The Wallabies concession of points at the scrum was also exacerbated by their Super Rugby inspired spurning of kickable three-pointers.
The Wallaby scrum was so unstable that Ben Alexander was yellow carded, for illegal binding, as early as the 24th minute. Such were Alexander’s technical problems that he didn’t emerge from the sin-bin and was faced with the sort of early ‘hook’ that haunts a prop’s career. It’s worth noting that Alexander wasn’t the only player forced to leave the pitch by the Lion’s front-row. Hibbard’s violent head clash with George Smith forced the openside to the leave the field temporarily – it didn’t even appear to re-adjust Hibbard’s golden locks.
Leading by example
Alun-Wyn Jones has long been regard as a ‘great player’ – after this performance Jones should now be regarded as a ‘great Lion’. It is often said that good captains lead from the front, well, Jones led from every direction. He led from the front of the defensive line, the back of maul, the top of the restarts and from the bottom of his heart – he also led from the bottom of most rucks; Jones is regularly the last player to be peeled from the bottom of the contact area.
It was a commanding display. Jones was the second joint-highest tackler and the joint-highest ball carrier in the pack. It is also worth remembering that this performance occurred in the wake of James Horwill’s second hearing for an alleged stamp. Many still found the outcome of the second hearing as unsatisfactory, for those, Jones’ performance may go some way to re-dressing, apologies, re-gaining the balance.
Leigh Halfpenny. Man of the Series
Halfpenny’s performance is best described as ‘not Bisto’ – this was different gravy. Halfpenny’s kicking has obviously drawn plaudits over recent weeks – it has been one of the finest goal kicking displays ever seen from a British Lion. In Sydney, Halfpenny once again completed 89% of his GK’s – eight from nine. However, against the Wallabies Halfpenny was also able to flex the other areas of his considerable skill set – his running angles and accurate passing were sublime.
With a safety-cushion of points, Halfpenny had the freedom to think offensively and, for the first time in the Series, ran more ball than he passed or kicked. Halfpenny also led the Lions in metres carried, clean breaks and executed two try scoring passes – his ability to run with the ball in two hands means that he rarely spurns a ‘two on one’. Prior to the tour, facing stiff competition, many questioned if Halfpenny was the best full-back. I doubt anyone feels that way now.
Gatland has the last laugh
The build-up to the third test had an unsavoury undercurrent. Warren Gatland’s decision to field ten Welsh players in the starting line-up brought out the worst in many supporters, ex-players and media pundits – a reaction which seems to have genuinely hurt him. The selection apparently questioned the Lions’ ethos and Brian O’Driscoll’s omission created a paranoid witch-hunt rarely seen outside of Salem.
However, Gatland and his coaches were proved to be right. The team selection would have been vindicated even if the Lions had won by a single point – to win by 25 points is proof beyond doubt that Gatland is a man whose judgment and motives shouldn’t be questioned so easily. Gatland took last week’s sour grapes and created a champagne moment – James Bond aside – from which every Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English supporter can take a sip. Well done Warren.