The Lions: Value to the sport from this tour is incalculable
Choice of Gatland as coach, strange itinerary and bold selections and tactics are vindicated by this rousing, recording-breaking finale
A great big beaming smile spread across the face of British and Irish rugby union as yesterday's tumultuous occasion unfolded in Sydney, with due tribute to be paid to an adopted New Zealander, the Lions head coach, Warren Gatland.
Up to this point, the ancient – some were arguing archaic – touring team were inked into the complex calendar of the worldwide game only up to their next trip, to New Zealand in 2017. Now the Lions dealmakers can get their diaries out for 2021 and beyond, and dare to think a little more ambitiously than before.
Leigh Halfpenny, an unassuming son of south-west Wales, was named man of the match in New South Wales and of the three-match series, won 2-1 by the Lions with a record score in this astonishing Third Test. The 24-year-old from Gorseinon had escaped his native Ospreys to emerge instead with the Cardiff Blues. But he has risen above any Valleys parochialism – we wait for the happy day when it twigs with the regions and the Welsh Rugby Union that they are on to a bloody good thing – with his major part on this tour as well as in Wales's Grand Slam this year.
Tracing a line through memorable modern Wales full-backs – JPR Williams, Paul Thorburn and Lee Byrne – there is a little of the best of all of them bundled up in Halfpenny's 5ft 10in frame. He played with his head up in attack (witness George North's try yesterday), was never outdone in defence and kicked his goals with an astounding rate of success. It is likely to be seconds rather than weeks or months before the cash-rich clubs in France make a big bid for Halfpenny.
Where to start with this first series won by the Lions since 1997? Maybe an overview as bludgeoning as the brilliantly executed scrummage prepared by Gatland and his forwards coach, Graham Rowntree. The Lions have won two of the five tours in the open era, and in any sport most would reckon that performance away from home to be satisfactory.
In the finer detail, this match became an utter vindication of the Gatland style of play – which, in turn, the former All Black hooker and those who appointed him felt was suited to the genuinely questionable concept of throwing together a team every four years, at the tiring end of the domestic season, with fixtures compromised by club finals and the weakness of the warm-up opposition.
That style has delivered notable victories, cups and titles for Gatland with Ireland (remember his part in the revival of the Noughties), Wasps, Waikato, Wales and the Lions. There is talk already of him leading the last of those again in New Zealand in four years' time.
In the background, but only just, is the pile of money these tours generate. The Lions will insist their post-2017 contract gives them a bigger slice of the action. The players' employers will want to be at the negotiating table. There may be a wariness of dabbling with the formula, but why not improve the itinerary and spread the love to anywhere rugby is appreciated, or even where it isn't.
Of course, all of those Gatland teams mentioned above lost big matches and tournaments too, and the 2013 Lions could easily have gone the same way before yesterday. Australia fluffed their big chance when they missed five goal-kicks out of nine in the First Test in Brisbane. But if the mostly hyper-accurate Halfpenny had succeeded with his monster penalty in the final minute of the Second Test in Melbourne, the third would have been as dead as a roadkill dingo.
Ultimately we all thought sagely that Sydney would be a matter of fine margins – and then the Lions posted a points total to beat their previous record, a 31-0 win over Australia in 1966, and a winning margin second only to the same match.
Where it leaves the present-day Wallabies is anyone's guess. The overarching, uplifting conclusion closer to home is an affirmation of the variety of the game as it is played in Britain and Ireland.
Yes, there is a gradually disappearing level of subtlety, and that will continue while gym doors are open and dull-minded coaches walk the earth. It was epitomised here, rather unfairly, in the dropping of the genius footballer Brian O'Driscoll, when probably the truth was that the great man's time had passed.
But from Alex Corbisiero to Alun Wyn Jones, Jonny Sexton to Halfpenny, Tom Youngs to Gatland and Rowntree, the 2013 Lions possessed qualities of flair and humility, obduracy and fallibility. What more does anyone want?
Previous series wins
1891 v South Africa 3-0
1896 v South Africa 3-1
1899 v Australia 3-1
1904 v Australia 3-0
1950 v Australia 2-0
1959 v Australia 2-0
1966 v Australia 2-0
1971 v New Zealand 2-1
1974 v South Africa 3-0
1989 v Australia 2-1
1997 v South Africa 2-1
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