IT’S time now that Brian O’Driscoll’s followers came to their senses and saw the bigger picture, time for the moping to stop, time that all that barmy talk about Warren Gatland having somehow betrayed Lions tradition when dropping the great man was consigned to the rubbish tip.
Gatland had the courage of his convictions to do what he thought was right in order to win the series – and his judgment was unerring.
History will recall Dricogate, for sure, but it will also remember what happened in the wake of it. It seems wrong to single out one player above all others on days such as this, but it’s unavoidable because Leigh Halfpenny left the kind of indelible mark on this Test – and this series – as many of his storied countrymen of the past. Wherever they were watching, you could picture JPR and JJ and Barry John and Phil Bennett standing up to applaud Halfpenny. Man of the series.
It’s a fact that this Wallaby team is a pale imitation of some of the Australian teams of the past. It’s also a fact that the Lions struggled badly in the first two matches of the series, got things wrong and could be deemed lucky to have taken it to a deciding Test. That much must be acknowledged. Australia had horrendous misfortune in Brisbane when their backline was decimated by injury, principally to their dead-eye goal-kicker, Christian Leali’ifano, who lasted barely two minutes. It’s a question with no answer, but it’s worth posing anyway. What would have happened had Leali’ifano stayed on the pitch to kick the points that James O’Connor so haplessly failed to kick?
The Lions, of course, have not been short of injury crises themselves. They, too, have had to overcome adversity. They lost one captain, in Sam Warburton, and lost another, in Paul O’Connell. Not all those who disagreed with Gatland’s decision to drop O’Driscoll did so on the grounds of sentiment. Many believed that his Lions team for the third Test lacked leaders. Gatland said he didn’t. He was correct about that one, too.
They got everything right yesterday. They found their best stuff when they needed it most, their scrum dynamiting the Wallaby scrum, their backs exploding to life late on and showing the elan that was completely absent a week ago. These Lions showed, at last, what they are made of.
This was not just Wales versus Australia, but England and Ireland and, yes, even Scotland, too. Richie Gray played out the last minutes of the Test as his earlier performances on tour warranted. Gatland shipped some heavy flak for some of his earlier selections and some of his questionable gameplans – and rightly so. But what he came up with in Sydney was clear-headed and brilliantly executed. The finest coach of his generation has known some fantastic days, but this, surely, was the best of them.
Tell Gray that this coruscating victory was all about the ten Welshmen who started the Test and you will get your answer, most probably between the eyes. Say the same thing to Sean O’Brien, who carried and tackled himself to a standstill, or to Jonny Sexton, who scored the turning-point try or to Geoff Parling, the quietly effective Englishman in the second-row. The spirit of the Lions shone through in all of these guys and more, regardless of accents or nationality. One team and not four countries. The tradition survives. It was in good hands in Sydney. All of Gatland’s big calls came up trumps. Jonathan Davies put in a fine performance at outside centre in place of O’Driscoll. Toby Faletau was hugely influential in place of Jamie Heaslip. O’Brien was immense in Sam Warburton’s shirt. Until he went off, Richard Hibbard was part of a Lions front-row that completely demolished their opposite numbers, winning, at scrum-time, free-kick after free-kick, penalty after penalty and three-pointer after three-pointer, thanks to Halfpenny’s boot.
That Lions scrum – Alex Corbisiero and the remarkable Adam Jones completing the holy, or hairy, trinity in the front row – gave the Lions the impetus right from the start. What they did to the Wallaby scrum was almost indecent.
So many of the portents of doom beforehand turned out to be wrong. There was a widespread fear that the Lions would lack leaders in the pressure moments, but they did not. When the heat came on – their 19-3 lead having been whittled back to 19-16 following 13 Australian points in six minutes either side of half-time – the Lions giants emerged. Alun-Wyn Jones was the on-field captain, and what a huge job he did. But the supporting cast was magnificent, truly magnificent.
Around the 50-minute mark, this Test match – and Lions history – took a seismic turn. The Wallabies were piling on the pressure and the feeling of impending danger was inescapable. Hibbard had just thrown crooked at a lineout. Parling had just knocked-on. Mike Phillips had almost been intercepted and the momentum was all one way. Then the old reliable scrum won yet another penalty and Halfpenny kicked the Lions into some breathing space.
Four minutes later, an enormous moment. The Wallabies had brought play inside the Lions 22 with a menace that was worrying. At the breakdown, Faletau shovelled the ball out with his giant hand and ransacked the Australians of possession at precisely the time when they must have been thinking of the converted try that would have put them ahead for the first time. Three minutes later, Sexton scored down the other end. That was the game right there. The 13-point lead had been re-established and the Wallabies were once again sickened to their core.
In those closing minutes they were torn apart, Halfpenny and George North combining for one try, Conor Murray and Jamie Roberts linking for another. The running power and timing and daring was now being unleashed and soon the emotion would come tumbling out, too. Rarely in the 125-year story of the Lions have the closing minutes of the decisive Test been such a celebration, such a pressure-free romp. History made in many different ways.