It was not until their last tour here a dozen years ago that the Lions found a way of breaking through the 30-point barrier against New South Wales – or the Waratahs, as the locals are known in this age of the punchy nicknames.
Yesterday, Leigh Halfpenny scored 30 on his own, topping up another flawless kicking display with a couple of well-taken tries. Yet it was a measure of this high-calibre effort from the tourists that a trio of players shone even more brightly than the Wales full-back.
Where to start? Up front, that’s where. The overwhelming majority of rugby matches are won by the forward pack – unless something very odd happens, the backs merely decide the margin of victory – so the pleasure taken by the Lions coaches in the performances of the lock Alun Wyn Jones and flanker Tom Croft was wholly understandable. Wyn Jones, unnervingly quiet in his previous outings, found the best of himself at just the right time while Croft was a transformative figure, both at the line-out and across the wide-open prairies.
Away from the grunt-and-groan department there was an eye-catching contribution from Jonathan Davies, who travelled here as the second outside-centre to the great Brian O’Driscoll – how’s that for a thankless task? – yet performed so strongly against the most aggressive and abrasive opponents of the trip to date that he almost demanded a place in the starting line-up for next weekend’s First Test against the Wallabies in Brisbane.
To describe the Welsh midfielder’s display as welcome would be an understatement of mighty proportions, given the misfortune that befell his countryman and fellow centre Jamie Roberts midway through the final quarter. Roberts, one of the Lions’ strongmen in South Africa four years ago and a cast-iron certainty to have started this series in the No 12 shirt, was gang-tackled inside the Waratahs’ 22 as he sought to continue another withering Lions attack and sank to the ground clutching his right hamstring, his face contorted in pain.
He still looked in acute discomfort when, after a prolonged period of on-field treatment, he limped down the players’ tunnel as the game restarted without him. As the Cardiff Blues man, bound for club rugby in France next season, was the only specialist inside-centre selected in the original party – Billy Twelvetrees of England is now here, but he has yet to set foot on the field after flying in from Argentina on Friday – the seriousness of this development was obvious.
There could easily have been other casualties, for the Waratahs, prime movers in the almighty dust-up against the tourists at this same venue in 2001, went Lion hunting once again. Their physicality was more targeted on this occasion: the visiting half-backs, Mike Phillips and Jonathan Sexton, were the men who found themselves in the firing line. Sexton, in particular, was given a thorough roughing-up, and there were times when the most important player in the squad was seen hobbling around like an arthritic old maid.
But the Irish playmaker was not to be denied: he created a good deal during his 49 minutes on the field and managed to erase most of the concerns over his fitness, generated by the hamstring strain he suffered during last week’s victory over the Queensland Reds. This was another significant bonus for the coaches. Even the vaguest threat of losing both Sexton and Roberts from the midfield would border on the calamitous.
The Lions should have been on the scoreboard within 40 seconds of the start of this high-voltage encounter, Sexton and Davies showing some imaginative touches in freeing the Lions newcomer Simon Zebo down the left.
The Irish wing, called in as injury cover last weekend, should have made his bow in a blaze of glory, but he blew the chance by sliding a foot into touch when challenged by the outstanding Drew Mitchell, far and away the Waratahs’ best player.
It did not matter a fat lot, as things transpired. Five minutes in, Davies and Sexton combined again after excellent work from a pumped-up Halfpenny, the centre creating the opening try for the outside-half with an intelligent round-the-corner pass. Halfpenny, who had already knocked over a long-range penalty with customary aplomb, nailed the conversion from wide out.
As they had promised during the build-up to the game, the Waratahs were in no mood to run up the white flag; their locks, Ollie Atkins and the supersized Will Skelton, put themselves about at close quarters, while the gifted outside-half Bernard Foley joined Mitchell in asking questions with ball in hand.
They were rewarded with a try by the centre Tom Carter after the Lions wing Sean Maitland fluffed a tackle. Yet there was not the merest hint of panic in the tourists’ ranks. Halfpenny hit the spot with two further penalties, and when the full-back crossed just before half-time following Sexton’s clever chip for Zebo and some heavy-duty driving from Wyn Jones, there was no obvious way back for the home side.
Halfpenny was over the line again within minutes of the restart – a superb strike move, with the midfield trio working in perfect harmony to create the necessary space – and after a second, barely meaningful close-range response from Carter, the Lions rubbed in their superiority with a galloping try down the left from Croft and a jog-in down the right from Davies, who deserved his score more than anyone.
Waratahs: D Mitchell; C Crawford, R Horne, T Carter, P Betham; B Foley, B McKibbin; J Tilse, J Ulugia, P Ryan, W Skelton, O Atkins, J Holloway, P McCutcheon, D Dennis (capt). Replacements: T Kingston for Carter, 46; L Timani for Holloway, 49; A J Gilbert for McCutcheon, 55; B Volavola for Betham, 71; M Lucas for McKibbin, 72; R Aho for Tilse, 72; L Holmes for Ulugia, 72; S Talakai for Ryan, 72.
Lions: L Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues); S Maitland (Glasgow), J Davies (Scarlets), J Roberts (Cardiff Blues), S Zebo (Munster); J Sexton (Leinster), M Phillips (Bayonne); M Vunipola (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), A Jones (Ospreys), A W Jones (Ospreys), P O’Connell (Munster), T Croft (Leicester), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues; capt), J Heaslip (Leinster). Replacements: O Farrell (Saracens) for Sexton, 49; R Kearney (Leinster) for Halfpenny, 59; B Youngs (Leicester) for Phillips, 59; A Corbisiero (London Irish) for Vunipola, 59; R Hibbard (Ospreys) for T Youngs, 59; D Cole (Leicester) for A Jones, 59; G Parling (Leicester) for O’Connell, 59; D Lydiate (Newport Gwent Dragons) for Croft, 59.
Referee: J Peyper (South Africa).