By Owain Jones, in Sydney
THE ROAD sweepers were out in force in Sydney this morning, clearing away the debris from a heady night, as the sun rose for another flawless mid-winter’s day sunshine. What had passed before, just hours earlier, metaphorically, also merited a memory wipe from the proud Australian sporting pysche. It was a loss that they will doubtless be trying to expunge yet it could have lasting ramifications for the hosts long after the last bedraggled Lions fans leave this fair continent.
Sitting up at the top table, Robbie Deans, their coach of five years, looked like a dead man walking at last night’s press conference. Even his trusted Lieutenant James Horwill stumbled over the right words for reasons as to why the curt New Zealander should be kept on. With Jake White and Ewen McKenzie reportedly waiting on the sidelines, it would surprise, and undoubtedly enrage certain members of the Australian rugby community if he is still at the helm come Australia’s November tour. The ARU have some important decisions to make but all is not lost, the Lions Tour has regenerated interest in a game in where it increasingly struggles for the oxygen of publicity with NRL, football and Aussie Rules in an overcrowded marketplace. The boys in Green and Gold will rise again.
And what of the tourists? In the wake of last night’s soul-stirring victory, the overriding emotion, beyond weariness, is happiness and palpable relief to have got the job done after a 16-year wait.
Elite sport is measured by the finest of margins and the Third Test was one such occasion where pivotal moments could be pinpointed; the uncharacteristic Will Genia spill from the kick-off, the flying tap-tackle from Geoff Parling as Jesse Mogg cut a fine line, and Toby Faletau’s majestic turnover five metres from the Lions line. Then of course there’s little Leigh Halfpenny, who threw his body on the ground to snaffle the ball as a last line of defence, with onrushing Wallabies in hot pursuit. It was as if his life depended on it. All these examples of bravery that will doubtless be etched into Lions folklore.
Indeed, these were the moments that won the Series, in every way as much the unforgettable scores by Messrs Corbisiero, Sexton, North and Roberts put the scoreboard beyond reach of an increasingly moribund Wallaby outfit.
Later, Warren Gatland and captain for the night, Alun Wyn Jones, were quick to praise the contribution of every squad member, from No 1 to 23. Richard Hibbard, did his best impression of Ram Man, throwing himself into contact without regard for his own safety, bringing winces from fans. Sean O’Brien played as if someone has stolen his prize-winning bull, rampaging around the pitch, racking up a dozen tackles before the break. He was ably assisted by chopper-in-chief Dan Lydiate. It was a night for heroes.
Up in the stands, encased in a portakabin, surrounded by media, was the Lions coaching team, headed by Warren Gatland. From being relaxed in the opening half hour, as the Wallabies mounted their expected fightback came in the middle half hour to reduce the lead to three points, the impassive facial expression the New Zealande wears so well darkened and the brow furrowed until that oh-so magical 57th minute try by Jonny Sexton. The banging on desks, fist pumping and joyous grins alluded to the pressure Gatland had been under in the lead-up to the final Test, in which he had omitted Lions icon Brian O’Driscoll. It was the toughest of calls, but even the hard-nosed head coach was surprised by the firestorm that ensued, where every facet of his coaching pedigree was poked, prodded and openly questioned on social media and by a number of high-profile ex-players and commentators.
If privately Gatland could afford to cock-a-snook at his critics, publicly he wasn’t showing it post-game, only speaking of the hurt and surprise such vitriolic abuse brought. You would imagine that, in time, he will afford afford himself a wry-smile behind closed doors, among trusted allies.
What was patently obvious was that Gatland cared. In a week where his credentials and the Lions ethos the management were protecting, were questioned, they emerged reinvigorated and emboldened ready for a crack at New Zealand. From the noises the Lions management were making, they are hoping the straight-talking Kiwi will commit to them, but sport has a funny way of throwing up mouth-watering match-ups. It is not beyond comprehension to think that he could be leading an All Black side against the Lions after his extended Northern Hemisphere sojourn. Stranger things have happened.
As they say, that’s a conversation for another day. Roll on, 2017.