Australia 16 British & Irish Lions 41 match report: Leigh Halfpenny on the money as Lions hit jackpot
Inspirational kicking from Welsh full-back allows tourists to capitalise on scrum dominance and clinch historic 2-1 series victory against Wallabies in style
They had to win it twice over – the devil's own job in a country where winning once requires everything a team possess – but when the victory was finally achieved it was as gloriously complete as anything ever seen from the Lions.
Four tries to one, a record score in front of a record crowd and a history-busting 21-point haul for Leigh Halfpenny, the inspirational Welsh full-back? Sporting dreams usually consist of far less.
For Warren Gatland, the head coach, it was an experience deeply felt: an 80-minute vindication after four days of vilification. Lambasted from one end of the home islands to the other for his decision to drop the Irish centre Brian O'Driscoll, he admitted afterwards that he had been both shaken and shocked by the ferocity of the response. "My balls were on the line," he said, and he was right.
But on this momentous occasion it was not his revamped midfield that made the difference. Gatland played his rugby in the front row and understood better than most that if his pack, bolstered by the return of the England prop Alex Corbisiero and the introduction of the Wales No 8 Toby Faletau, could crank up the heat at scrum and breakdown, they would have the beating of a Wallaby team fragile at the set-piece and shorn of the brilliant flanker David Pocock.
Corbisiero produced a stunning performance, scrummaging his first opponent, Ben Alexander, clean off the field inside 25 minutes, while Faletau smashed Wallaby forwards to all parts and won crucial turnovers. One of those turnovers, midway through the third quarter when the home side had the scent of victory in their nostrils, was a turning point in the match.
And then there was Halfpenny: quiet, withdrawn, not so much shy of public debate as utterly petrified. On the field yesterday, he could not have been louder or more brazen in his actions. Time and again he punished the Wallabies' inability to meet close-quarter fire with fire by banging over penalties from all ranges and angles. He also had a big hand in two of the three tries scored by the Lions in the space of a dozen golden minutes either side of the hour mark, and was near-perfect in his defensive positioning.
The Wallabies were anything but perfect: indeed, they started digging their own grave in the opening seconds when their scrum-half maestro, Will Genia, of all people, let the kick-off slip through his hands. Corbisiero piled it on at the ensuing scrum, Mike Phillips tapped the free-kick awarded when the Australian pack hit the deck and, as the goal-line siege moved across field, the prop who had started it all barrelled through Benn Robinson and touched down at the sticks from the traditional front-rower's range of a metre.
So began a magical first quarter for the tourists. Halfpenny extended the lead to double figures with a magisterial penalty from halfway, added an awkward shot of 40 metres-plus following another set-piece surge from Corbisiero and company and then, after the infliction of yet more scrum pain, chipped over an easier chance from a mere 30 metres. All the Australians could offer in reply was a single penalty from Christian Leali'ifano.
It got better. Tommy Bowe, hunting off his wing, fumbled a pass in open field when the Lions had numbers going left, but the Wallaby scrum crumbled on their own ball and Alexander was sent to the cooler for repeated failures: some of technique, others of strength and will. Halfpenny rubbed it in with another three points, and when Alexander's period of penance expired he was not sent back on. Corbisiero's triumph was complete.
This was not the case for the Lions, for on the stroke of half-time James O'Connor, the Wallaby outside-half, slipped away from Jonny Sexton to claim a converted try. Suddenly the hosts were back in range, and when the cucumber-cool Leali'ifano slotted two penalties in the opening five minutes of the second period the gap was down to a single kick.
It was then that the Lions found a way of sending the rugby world spinning off its axis. Once again they made an unholy mess of the Wallaby scrum; once again, Halfpenny locked on to his target and transformed the ball into a heat-seeking missile.
The Australians responded ferociously, launching waves of attacks in the Lions 22, but Faletau, magnificent throughout, stripped the ball from them in front of his own posts – a mighty defensive act that allowed Jonathan Davies and George North to attack down the left and swing the territorial battle the Lions' way.
From this position Davies again attacked hard and fed Halfpenny, whose horizontal palm-pass sent Sexton on a joyous run to the line.
Eight minutes later, the full-back delivered another scoring pass, this time to North, after fielding Genia's clearance and running it back from whence it came. It was the moment that secured the spoils.
The wrap-up try from Jamie Roberts on 67 minutes was simplicity itself – a flat pass from Conor Murray, an inch-perfect line from the powerful centre – and nothing more than an added extra. But it was none the less beautiful for that.
As Gatland said: "It's either agony or ecstasy at this level, with nothing in between. You have to enjoy the good moments." Maybe he was happy after all.
Australia K Beale; I Folau, A Ashley-Cooper, C Leali'ifano, J Tomane; J O'Connor, W Genia; B Robinson, S Moore, B Alexander, K Douglas, J Horwill (capt), B Mowen, G Smith, W Palu. Replacements M Hooper for Smith, 4-9, 66; J Mogg for Folau, 26; S Kepu for Smith, 26; Smith for Alexander, 35; S Fainga'a for Moore, 54-61, 72; B McCalman for Palu, 59; R Simmons for Robinson, 61; J Slipper for Robinson, 66; N Phipps for Genia, 69.
Lions L Halfpenny; T Bowe, J Davies, J Roberts, G North; J Sexton, M Phillips; A Corbisiero, R Hibbard, A Jones, A W Jones (capt), G Parling, D Lydiate, S O'Brien, T Faletau. Replacements T Youngs for Hibbard, 47; C Murray for Phillips, 50; D Cole for A Jones, 54; J Tipuric for Faletau, 54; Faletau for O'Brien, 59; O Farrell for Sexton, 62; M Vunipola for Corbisiero, 67; R Gray for Parling, 67; M Tuilagi for Roberts, 72.
Referee R Poite (France).
Pens: Leali'ifano 3
Tries: Corbisiero, Sexton, North, Roberts
Cons: Halfpenny 3
Pens: Halfpenny 5
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