Stuart Barnes on moments and calls that saw Lions beat Australia
Stuart Barnes highlights the firepower, fortune and foresight that saw the Lions triumph in Australia.
Last Updated: 08/07/13 5:12pm
Overwhelming power, emanating from the scrum, a beautifully balanced back row and three tries from the backs in a nine-minute burst that must be up there with the finest 10 minutes of Lions rugby from any era.
It was a series Warren Gatland's men had to win. There was no scope for heroic failure as we witnessed four years ago against the then World Champions, South Africa. Australia are never weak opposition but this was a team in relative turmoil there for the taking and on Saturday night the Lions did just that.
But the road to the series triumph was a rocky one. Unforeseen events, as ever, play their fated role. Was there a more important moment of action than the collision that occurred between the charging Jonathan Davies and Wallaby debutant, Christian Leali'ifano within the first minute of the first Test?
We now know what a fine kicker the Brumbies centre is. Had he stayed on the field the odds are that Australia would have won the first Test match; the series could have been over before Gatland's men found the game to match the promises.
Lions fans like to talk about Nathan Grey's elbow on Richard Hill as the turning point in 2001, well from Australia's perspective this tour was about the legitimate clash that cost them their goal kicking centre. The Lions got lucky this time as they did not in South Africa. Stay around long enough and you see the wheel of fortune generally spins full circle.
The Lions had luck on their side but you still have to utilise it and in week three they did do brilliantly. Gatland's decision to head for the relative quiet of Noosa and allow the players a few beers in the days after the Melbourne loss was a masterstroke. The tension eased and by Thursday belief had been completely restored.
Rugby is not just about power and fitness. Psychological strength and freshness has a role to play. Gatland understands this and set out his team superbly ahead of last Saturday.
He also made the boldest call of his career in dropping Brian O'Driscoll. In the wake of a 41-point demolition there was no way the critics could do anything but doff their caps in his direction.
An Irish fan, in the middling hours of Sunday morning, was adamant that with the front foot ball the great Irishman would have done a job. Maybe he would but the point is that Roberts and Davies delivered to a capital T what was required.
The inclusion of Richard Hibbard was smart. He played no small part alongside Alex Corbisiero and Adam Jones in pulling the foundations from beneath the feet of Will Genia with a dominant scrum.
With Leigh Halfpenny as deadly as ever the Lions racked up points from scrum dominance. In the first half 16 of their 19 points came directly or indirectly from scrum free kicks or penalties.
Behind this scrum surge the Lions best balanced back row of the tour thrived. Toby Faletau stepped into the shoes of Jamie Heaslip and produced a blinder with his Welsh team mate, Dan Lydiate his usual imposing self.
But the key to the balance was the extra dynamism Sean O'Brien added on the open side. I am not suggesting that the Lions would not have won had the Tullow Tank not started but it seemed the best back row of the tour, despite the absence of the captain through injury.
Just as Irish fans have to accept the decision of Gatland to opt for Welsh centres, Welsh supporters should recognise, on the evidence of this game, that the best Lions back row did not include their captain. It is not a question of the best individual but the best balance. O'Brien and Lydiate provided it.
Behind the scrum Jonny Sexton was superb when it mattered. At 19-16 with Australia gaining momentum his cross-field kick to George North from his own 22 lifted the siege. The Lions marched up field and Sexton orchestrated and scored the try that was the beginning of the end for the Wallabies.
Jamie Roberts produced a big game performance in attack and defence. His try, slashing off the angle to take a pass from Conor Murray (a big tour improver) was everything the Lions wanted and missed when he was injured in the week before the first Test.
But injuries cannot be used to excuse the problems the Lions had offensively in the first two Tests, the Wallabies had as many major casualties - not to mention the self-inflicted wound of James O'Conor at fly half.
And behind them all was Leigh Halfpenny, imperious kicker, brilliant game reader and the man who played two huge parts in two of the three killer tries. Player of the Six Nations, the Lions series and surely IRB World Player of the Year... even they cannot get this one wrong!
It was a tour that started on a contentious note in Hong Kong. Corporate interests threatened to swallow the essence of the Lions. In Perth, Michael Foley belittled the Lions by picking a weakened Western Force.
In Brisbane, the Reds lifted the tour with a brave and brilliant effort from a team at half strength. The Lions put in a potent performance a week later against the equally weakened Waratahs before injuries left them exposed to the Brumbies and a first defeat.
From there to the series, a series that was high on raw drama for two Tests and blessedly full of quality as the Lions put the average Australians away in Sydney.
Of the try scorers, Alex Corbisiero had recovered from a calf injury that would have seen him sent home on earlier tours; so too the hamstring injury of Jamie Roberts. George North was a major worry in the week before the Tests and Jonny Sexton was tender on his own taut hamstrings for the early part of the tour.
A major congratulation is due to James Robson and his medical team who worked around the clock to get the players on the field, and fit enough to win a series.
On Saturday they took the field, fit and raring and they did the Lions, their countries, friends and families proud. If they can start the Test series against the All Blacks in 2017 as they finished this one they could follow in the footsteps of the most famous Lions team of all, the 71 Lions and beat the All Blacks in their own yard.
Four years is a long time and a huge amount of rugby stands between now and then but after Saturday night in Sydney Lions fans can dare to dream. 35,000 of them supported their team brilliantly and in splendid humour, their team made the journey worthwhile. Dreams can become realities, now and then.
I'll be back with the usual dose of reality some time in late August. Right now I am off for some R&R. Hope you enjoyed the tour and thanks for your interest all season.