Over the last fortnight, there has been a mighty upheaval in the Wallaby nation: the cricket coach has been sacked; the Prime Minister has been stabbed in the front by her own party colleagues and driven from high office; the rugby union coach is generally assumed to be heading the same way. It seems the least important of these three developments – the one Australians are not discussing in the street – is the second. Sport matters this much to them.
But as the BBC commentator Barry Davies once said of the West Germany hockey team’s demise in the 1988 Olympic final: “Frankly, who cares?” Win or lose, Lions tours are about the Lions – about their status, their meaning, their future. Like taxes and the poor (and to be sure, they were overtaxed and particularly poor in the scrum as the final Test of this captivating series unfolded in Sydney at the weekend), the Wallabies will always be with us, just like the All Blacks and the Springboks. It has not always been obvious that the same applies to the red-shirted collective from the old country.
The Lions needed this series victory in the way a starving man needs nourishment: defeat here, after the row over the sponsor-driven fixture in Hong Kong, the ruck over understrength provincial opposition, the righteous concern over the “beer break” on the Queensland coast and the toxic fallout over the dropping of Brian O’Driscoll, would have left the hierarchy with some difficult questions to answer. As it is, they can crack open a few bottles secure in the knowledge that they have kept the thing alive.
Some hard questions will still be asked: indeed, the admirably composed and highly effective tour manager, Andy Irvine, addressed some of them yesterday. But by beating the Australians in the way they did, with records being broken left, right and centre by a team playing eye-catching rugby drawn straight from the well of Lions tradition, they have reasserted their place at the heart of union matters. The World Cup in England in 2015 will be bigger and brasher, but precious few purists will expect it to be more brightly coloured – or, for that matter, better in any way than this tour.
Support for this view was provided by the England prop Alex Corbisiero, whose contribution on the loose-head side of the scrum prompted the coach, Warren Gatland, to single him out as the man of the match ahead of Leigh Halfpenny, the Wales full-back who scored 21 points – a Test record for a Lion – and helped create match-winning tries for Jonathan Sexton and George North in the second half.
“I’m a bit lost for words,” said the 24-year-old forward after a wrecking-ball performance of such potency, both physical and technical, that his direct opponent, Ben Alexander, was off the field and back in the hutch long before the interval. “It’s the best day of my life and I’m just grateful to have achieved something like this,” Corbisiero said. “It will definitely be a highlight of my career because there is no tomorrow as a Lion, no next year. It may never happen again for you. Who knows? A lot of us might not be here in four years’ time. Alun Wyn Jones said this one game was an opportunity for us to wear the shirt for ever and that was our mentality.”
Jones was the first stand-in captain in more than a century to lead the Lions to a series victory and he said all the right things at all the right times. There were moments in the middle of the game when the tourists needed a clear head and a guiding hand, and the Ospreys lock provided them, as well as winning his personal battle with the Wallaby captain, James Horwill, with whom he had developed such an interesting relationship over the course of the series.
Not that the man from Swansea needed to be at his most tactically astute when it came to unleashing Halfpenny on the hosts. “When I spoke to Leigh before the game and asked him for his goal-kicking range, he told me, ‘Halfway, either side of the field’. I just said: ‘OK.’ It meant Australia had to be whiter than white whenever they were in the ‘grey zone’ as well as the ‘red zone’. And they knew it, too.”
Corbisiero, Jones, Halfpenny; these were the men principally responsible for a victory that reduced Horwill to a giant reservoir of sobs and snuffles – there may not be another captain in international rugby who takes defeat so personally – and left Robbie Deans, the Australians’ head coach, in P45 territory. These three, and one other. Step forward Toby Faletau, drafted into the back row ahead of Jamie Heaslip, the Irishman who had played five straight Lions Tests as first-choice No 8.
It was the Tongan-born Welshman’s stealing of possession in front of his own sticks midway through the third quarter that did most to stem a Wallaby tide that was threatening to sweep the tourists away. More than that, it allowed the Lions to move upfield in the blink of an eye and establish the position from which Sexton would score down the left from Halfpenny’s horizontally delivered pass. “That was the game,” agreed Andy Farrell, the Lions defence coach, who had suffered more than most at the hands of the Australians during a long career in rugby league. “I’ve waited 25 years for this,” he added.
Faletau’s introduction would have been the supreme expression of the selector’s art had not Gatland made a number of other choices every bit as good. A starting place for Corbisiero instead of Mako Vunipola? Spot on. Richard Hibbard for Tom Youngs at hooker? Even Youngs, close to exhausted at the fag end of a phenomenal first campaign at Test level, considered this to be a sensible call. Sean O’Brien in the breakaway role for the stricken Sam Warburton? No one put in more of a shift. Jamie Roberts for the revered O’Driscoll? Look at the scoresheet.
The one so-so performance was delivered by Mike Phillips at scrum-half, but it was the Welshman who prepared the ground for Corbisiero’s early try and tackled himself to a standstill when the Wallabies came surging back in the grim minutes either side of the interval. And when Gatland withdrew him with half an hour left, Conor Murray of Ireland played his best rugby of the tour off the bench. Sometimes, things just fall into place.
“All those people who criticised the selection missed the story,” Gatland remarked. “The story wasn’t the team who started the game; the story was the team who ended it.” The coach had long been convinced that if he could hurt the Wallabies anywhere, it was at the set piece, with the boot and at substitution time. In all those areas, as in so many others, he was proved right.
Whether or not the next coach, whoever he may be, is proved correct again in his decision-making in New Zealand in four years’ time is a very moot point: when it really matters, no one makes an All Black pack look like a bunch of Wallabies. But we can at least say the Lions have earned themselves another shot at the ultimate prize. It will be, as it almost always is, fun watching them go after it.
Australia: Try O’Connor; Conversion Leali’ifano; Penalties Leali’ifano 3. British & Irish Lions: Tries Corbisiero, Sexton, North, Roberts; Conversions Halfpenny 3; Penalties Halfpenny 5.
Australia: K Beale (Melbourne Rebels); I Folau (NSW Waratahs), A Ashley-Cooper (NSW Waratahs), C Leali’ifano (ACT Brumbies), J Tomane (ACT Brumbies); J O’Connor (Melbourne Rebels), W Genia (Queensland Reds); B Robinson (NSW Waratahs), S Moore (ACT Brumbies), B Alexander (ACT Brumbies), K Douglas (NSW Waratahs), J Horwill (Queensland Reds, capt), B Mowen (ACT Brumbies), G Smith (ACT Brumbies), W Palu (NSW Waratahs). Replacements: M Hooper (NSW Waratahs) for Smith, 4-9 and 66; J Mogg (ACT Brumbies) for Folau, 26; S Kepu (NSW Waratahs) for Smith, 26; Smith for Alexander, 35; S Fainga’a (Queensland Reds) for Moore, 54-61 and 72; B McCalman (Western Force) for Palu, 59; R Simmons (Queensland Reds) for Robinson, 61; J Slipper (Queensland Reds) for Robinson, 66; N Phipps (Melbourne Rebels) for Genia, 69.
British & Irish Lions: L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); T Bowe (Ulster), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), G North (Scarlets); J Sexton (Leinster), M Phillips (Bayonne); A Corbisiero (London Irish), R Hibbard (Ospreys), A Jones (Ospreys), A W Jones (Ospreys, capt), G Parling (Leicester), D Lydiate (Newport-Gwent Dragons), S O’Brien (Leinster), T Faletau (Newport-Gwent Dragons). Replacements: T Youngs (Leicester) for Hibbard, 47; C Murray (Munster) for Phillips, 50; D Cole (Leicester) for A Jones, 54; J Tipuric (Ospreys) for Faletau, 54; Faletau for O’Brien, 59; O Farrell (Saracens) for Sexton, 62; M Vunipola (Saracens) for Corbisiero, 67; R Gray (Sale) for Parling, 67; M Tuilagi (Leicester) for Roberts, 72.
Referee R Poite (France).