Record breaking Leigh Halfpenny scored 21 points as the Lions ran in four tries to destroy the Wallabies in Sydney for an historic 2-1 series triumph that ended a 16 year wait for success and proved that Warren Gatland is a genius.
Gatland was hammered for dropping Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll but this result – the Lions first series win since 1997 - was a massive vindication of his judgement. Before the end the Red Army of fans was waving goodbye to Wallaby supporters leaving early.
This win has made the Lions a force again on the world stage as a rugby team and not just a money making machine. Besides Halfpenny’s record haul of 49 points for any Lions test series there were tries for Alex Corbisiero, Jonny Sexton, George North and Jamie Roberts.
It means that O’Driscoll can finally enjoy a series win after four attempts in what is his final trip with the Lions and he joined in the back slapping with injured captain Sam Warburton and 2009 Lions injured skipper Paul O’Connell.
It all started so well with Will Genia dropping the kick off and when the Wallabies gave way a free kick and Bowe was stopped short. The ball was recycled quickly as Parling almost made the line and then Corbisiero took up the ball an span out of a tackle to crash over the line after just 87 seconds for Halfpenny to convert.
The Wallabies suffered another major blow in the fourth minute when flanker George Smith, making his 111 appearance for his country clashed heads with hooker Richard Hibbard and had to be led away from the pitch. Shortly afterwards, a turn over penalty on half way was handed to Halfpenny who had missed a winning kick from the same range in the second test, and this time it flew through the posts for 10-0 lead after seven minutes.
Smith was back three minutes later and his return came as Lealiifano kicked a penalty for the Wallabies after sloppy work at the restart by the Lions who blocked off the catcher.The Lions came back with a big scrum and Halfpenny kicked the resulting penalty as they tried to turn the screw up front as the crowd really got into the contest. Another monster scrum had the Wallabies standing up and Halfpenny punished them again for a handy 16-3 lead after 16minutes – a point a minute start by the Lions.
Things became critical for the Wallabies at the scrum with prop Ben Alexander sin binned in the 24 minute and the penalty was kicked once against by Halfpenny to establish a 19-3 advantage just as Israel Folau appeared to hurt his hamstring reaching for a long kick ahead by the Lions. Seconds later Folau was gone and Jesse Mogg came on. Almost immediately Smith went off again this time because of the need to bring on a front row forward.
The Lions only weakness was their kicking game and when replacement Mogg burst up field it took a fantastic tap tackle by Geoff Parling to stop the Brumbie from going all the way to the line. Playing too deep in their own half allowed Mogg to kick to the 10m lie and with Alexander left on the bench and replaced by Kefu, the Wallabies applied their first pressure but a high kick was superbly taken by North. However, a high tackle by O’Brien allow the Wallabies back inside the Lions 22 with half time approaching and Horwill almost reached the line.
Referee Poite brought them back for another penalty which the Wallabies again kicked to touch and somehow the Lions defence held out against repeated close range raids. But, the pressure told in the 40 min when O’Connor dived over after a much better scrum and a missed tackle hurt the Lions and Leali’ifano converted to make it 19-10 to the Lions at half time.
The Lions made a sloppy start to the second period – in contrast to the first – and Lydiate gave away a silly penalty at the break down which Lealiifano kicked to reduce the lead to three points after 41mins and suddenly all that effort had produced only a six point lead on the board for the Lions. It got even smaller when good pressure from the Wallabies earned another penalty which Lealiifano kicked and it was a three point game.
A Halfpenny penalty restored Lions confidence and they launched a raid down the left wing with Davies which Halfpenny carried on before giving Sexton the scoring pass which the video referee said was not forward and Halfpenny’s conversion made it 29-16 and the Lions fans started to breathe again. It got even better when Halfpenny made another break and this time there was no doubt about George North’s try but amazingly Halfpenny missed the conversion –his first is eight kicks tonight and the Lions were 34-16 up.
The Lions fans than acclaimed a classic Roberts try as he burst onto a short ball from Murray to race 30m to score and Halfpenny kicked the conversion to take his tally to 21 and he was named Man of the Match and the series.