THE British and Irish Lions delivered the performance their coach has always claimed was within them to win this best of three series by 2-1 and they did so in some style.
Australia 16 - 41 Lions
Referee: Romain Poite (France)
Scorers: Australia: Tries: O’Connor. Cons: Lealiifano. Pens: Lealiifano 3. British & Irish Lions: Tries: Corbisiero, Sexton, North, Roberts. Cons: Halfpenny 3. Pens: Halfpenny 5.
The tourists cut loose in the second half when they scored three tries in little more than ten minutes to kill dead any hopes the Wallabies had of making another dramatic comeback.
The host nation had already done it once in this match, fighting back from 19-3 down just before half time and recovering to 19-16 just after the break but that was as close as it got and the Lions engaged several more gears to motor clear of their arch rivals.
The Lions rode their luck with a try inside the first two minutes after Will Genia fumbled the kick-off and prop Alex Corbisiero barrelled over the line. But while the visitors enjoyed a dream start the match was a nightmare for the Wallabies from start to finish.
Much was made about the return to Test match rugby of the veteran flanker George Smith but he suffered a sickening clash of heads with Lions hooker Richard Hibbard and was led, visibly staggering, from the field five minutes in – only to reappear shortly after to the astonishment of everyone in the stadium.
He may have passed every concussion protocol with flying colours but he was pretty ineffectual and given what is known about the danger of head injuries, should have been replaced.
Worse was to come as Israel Folau, the twin try hero of the first Test, tweaked a hamstring around the half-hour mark and while his replacement Jesse Mogg looked the real deal and tore apart the Lions defence in one joint manoeuvre with Kurtley Beale, the Wallabies missed Folau’s aeriel threat.
For just about the first time on tour the Lions were able to utilise their advantage in sheer power mainly thanks to a front-row trio of Corbisiero, Hibbard and Adam Jones who first crushed the Wallaby bodies at the set scrum and then set about doing the same to the Australians’ spirit.
The Lions were also grateful to Leigh Halfpenny for his unerring boot and his brilliance with the ball in hand which had until then, been missing. The Welsh full-back scored five penalties, four of which came directly from the set scrum, and he earned an “assist” in two of the Lions’ three second-half tries. First up he sent Jonny Sexton over the line and then did the same favour for George North. Jamie Roberts scored the Lions’ fourth and last try after good work by Irish scrum-half Connor Murray.
Warren Gatland paid tribute to the impact of the reserve bench on this match and sure enough the fresh legs seemed to make a difference as the match entered the final quarter.
One of those was Richie Gray who came on around the 67th minute and looked like he was born for it. After Sean Maitland and Ryan Grant were overlooked in Brisbane and Melbourne respectively, Gray was the only Scot to appear for the Lions in a this series. It’s a damning statistic but it wasn’t going to spoil the day the lock.
“If you can’t smile tonight then you are dead,” he said. “It was an incredible victory, just the way it was won, and it was a very proud moment for myself so I’m very happy.
“We were points up when I came off the bench so I’m not going to claim I made too much of a difference but I played my part. I feel very honoured and privileged to have played.”
Scottish rugby has not been a power in the game for the last decade but still the Lions would have won this series in Melbourne had Gatland picked Grant ahead of Mako Vunipola who is a liability at the set scrum. Gray himself might have expected to start ahead of Englishman Geoff Parling who called the lineouts in Melborune and Sydney after Paul O’Connell broke his arm. Is there a feeling that the Scots have been hard done by?
“It’s not for me to say.Obviously from working with the Scottish lads I know what quality they have and they will be massively disappointed not to be involved.
“Having said that, they have loved every minute of the tour, we learned a lot from these other guys and we’ll return home having enjoyed our tour.
“Before this tour I wasn’t playing very well. I took that to heart quite a bit. I am quite happy I got a little bit of form and confidence back and I’ll take that into next season.”
Australia: Beale, Folau, Ashley-Cooper, Lealiifano, Tomane, O’Connor, Genia, Robinson, Moore, Alexander, Douglas, Horwill, Mowen, Smith, Palu. Replacements: Mogg for Folau (28), Phipps for Genia (70), Slipper for Robinson (67), Faingaa for Moore (73), Kepu for Alexander (35), Simmons for Douglas (63), Hooper for Smith (67), McCalman for Palu (61).
British & Irish Lions: Halfpenny, Bowe, Davies, Roberts, North, Sexton, Phillips, Corbisiero, Hibbard, A. Jones, A. Jones, Parling, Lydiate, O’Brien, Faletau. Replacements: Tuilagi for Roberts (70), Farrell for Sexton (64), Murray for Phillips (53), Vunipola for Corbisiero (68), T. Youngs for Hibbard (48), Cole for A. Jones (56), Gray for Parling (68), Tipuric for O’Brien (61).