IN THE end it was almost too easy, as the Wallabies saved their worst for last.
Australia - Try: James O’Connor. Conversion: Christian, Leali’ifano; Penalties: Leali’ifano (3).
Lions - Tries: Alex Corbisiero, Jonny Sexton, George North, Jamie Roberts. Penalties: Leigh Halfpenny (5). Conversions: Halfpenny (3).
The British and Irish Lions wiped clean 16 long years of hurt to record their first series victory since 1997 by winning the third and decisive Test in a thoroughly conclusive manner.
The first two matches required a photo-finish to separate these teams, but the Lions ran away with this one by several furlongs, scoring four tries in all, three of which arrived in a 13-minute blitz between the 55th and 68th minutes. Little wonder that the final whistle heralded an eruption of celebrations by players, management and the swathes of red-shirted fans in the Olympic Stadium’s stands.
The Wallabies looked dead and buried late in the first half when trailing by 19-3, but they fought back magnificently to reduce the deficit to just three points early in the second half and set some of the Lions’ nerves jangling, as the tourists must have had that sinking feeling all over again.
Thankfully, Leigh Halfpenny was on hand to steady the ship and, after yesterday’s performance, there is a suspicion that Superman sports a pair of Halfpenny underpants. The Welsh No.15 won the man of the match and man of the series award, and who would argue? On the night he kicked three conversions and five penalties, four of which came directly from the Lions’ dominance at the set scrum. It was these points that kept the Lions in the lead when the Wallabies fought back either side of half time, and it was those points that gave the Lions both the cushion and the confidence to move the ball late in the game and grab those three tries, two of which came courtesy of the Welsh full-back’s vision, pace and handling skills.
The match seemed all but over inside the first half hour, after the Lions enjoyed a dream start with seven points on the board while the latecomers were still buying their beers. Will Genia and Kane Douglas both left Jonny Sexton’s kick-off to each other and the scrum-half eventually snatched at it late and knocked the ball forward. At the ensuing scrum the Lions won a free kick. Mike Phillips took it quickly, George North and Alun-Wyn Jones were both held up short before Alex Corbisiero burrowed his way over the try line next to the posts.
After failing to trouble the Wallaby try line in Melbourne, it was just the tonic that the Lions needed and they continued to dominate the set piece to such an extent that Halfpenny got four shots at goal in the first half to give the Lions what looked like an unassailable 19-3 lead.
A bad evening then got even worse for Ben Alexander, who was struggling to keep a lid on Corbisiero because the Wallaby tighthead dropped one scrum too many, his fourth to be exact, and was sent to the naughty step. When his ten-minute stint was up, replacement Sekope Kepu stayed on the field and things improved for the home side, if only marginally.
To add to their woes, the fates then decided to deprive the hosts of their main strike weapon, because Israel Folau, who scored a brace of tries in the first Test, limped off with a hamstring injury on 26 minutes.
The home side had got on to the scoreboard with a Christian Leali’ifano penalty, but staring at an ever-expanding deficit, they were chasing the game from the third minute of this match. Eminently kickable penalties were spurned in favour of attacking lineouts on at least four occasions in the first half alone although, holding on to this match by their fingernails at 3-19, the Wallabies eventually got some reward for all their enterprise with a superb solo effort by James O’Connor on the stroke of half time.
From a rare, stable attacking scrum the Aussie stand-off danced past Sexton and Sean O’Brien before carrying Phillips over the try line with him. Defence coach Andy Farrell would have been having kittens in the coaches’ box but the try kept this game alive.
When Leali’ifano kicked two penalties in quick succession early in the second half, we had a three-point game and the Lions’ supporters, unaware of what awaited just around the corner, were suffering that sinking feeling. Halfpenny eased some nerves with another penalty before the Lions finally showed some teeth with three superb touchdowns in 13 minutes.
The Lions’ backs were gifted brilliant attacking positions from a series of loose Wallaby clearance kicks. Jon Davies sparked the first try by rounding the first defender and passing to Halfpenny, who injected a burst of raw speed before finding Sexton supporting on his inside and the Irish stand-off dabbed down under the posts. A few minutes later it could almost have been an action replay, only this time Halfpenny went outside and sent North flying up the left flank to score the Lions’ third try of the match. Roberts went through the thin yellow line for their fourth a few minutes later after a well-timed pass from scrum-half Connor Murray running from the base of a set scrum.
The Tom Richards Trophy was heading back to the British Isles and the red-clad fans were letting the world know it, including James Bond actor Daniel Craig, who not only sent Champagne to the players, but accompanied them on to the field as they reappeared to applaud their supporters.