“The thing about Test match rugby,” said Lions coach Warren Gatland with the victory in Australia barely registering on his dour features, “is that it is agony or ecstasy, there is nothing in between.”
If you imagined the Kiwi might have been overcome by the latter emotion in the post-match press conference, having become the first Lions coach in 16 years to record a series win, you’d be badly mistaken, but then again you haven’t suffered some of the brickbats that have come Gatland’s way these last few days after demoting Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll to the Sydney Olympic Stadium’s stands.
“Actually I was shocked by the criticism,” said the coach. “It was vitriolic, almost, the criticism. Look, people are entitled to their own opinion, but sometimes you have to make tough calls and we made one. We knew on Tuesday night when we made one that there would be some fallout but there are some other players on this tour that have been unlucky in terms of selection too. I haven’t taken a lot of pleasure out of tonight in terms of feeling vindicated. I just haven’t enjoyed the last 72 hours. It’s been pretty tough personally. Maybe in a week or two I might get some pleasure out of tonight but at the moment there hasn’t been a lot.”
If the ultimate prize between Gatland and his Kiwi rival in Sydney on Saturday night is the All Blacks gig after the next World Cup then Gatland did himself no harm with yesterday’s comprehensive dismantling of his rival’s Wallabies although he enjoyed untold resources compared to Robbie Deans.
The Lions select from 22 fully professional rugby clubs in the UK and Ireland, the Wallabies must pick from five Super 15 franchises. Despite that statistic Deans’ Wallaby future is in the balance and while skipper James Horwill backed his coach in person there are few in the corridors of power who are doing the same. It’s a fine line between making a principled stand and being plain stubborn and Deans, left, has skirted it in the whole Quade Cooper/James O’Connor argument.
Ewan McKenzie is the front runner to replace him. The Red’s coach used to prop up the Wallaby scrum in another era and he did a better job than Ben Alexander or Benn Robinson managed on Saturday evening.
Asked if the set scrum was the point of difference between the two teams, Deans replied “definitely” and his skipper obviously concurred.
“We weren’t good enough at scrum time,” Horwill admitted afterwards and that has been true for too long. The scrum weakness was a mine waiting to explode and Deans may be the principle victim from yesterday’s fallout.
The Lions bossed the set scrum from first to last which allowed Leigh Halfpenny to keep the scoreboard ticking over or simply allowed the Lions to lift the pressure on their own line.
The 12 points that came directly from scrum penalties only tell half the story because the psychological advantage that arises from bullying the opposition at the scrum is almost unquantifiable.
And Lions fans in kilts finally had something to cheer when Richie Gray became the first Scot to appear in this Test series after coming off the bench to replace Geoff Parling for the final 13 minutes of the match.
The big fella hadn’t much time to shine and the match was already won but he did what he had to do and he will emerge all the better for the experience.
But the final word goes to the losing skipper Horwill, who has been vilified almost as much as Gatland in the British press and ended up without a victory to ease his pains. After backing his coach, the Australian skipper backed the Lions’ old-fashioned, long tour format which professional rugby has endangered.
“This is what rugby is all about,” the losing skipper said, “touring with your mates and playing midweek games. Personally I’d like to see more of it.”
The IRB tried to teach the Australian skipper a lesson midweek in the disciplinary process. Perhaps Horwill has something to teach the game’s bosses in Dublin?