David Flatman: Mako Vunipola's heavy burden
The expert view
Sunday 30 June 2013
Never in my memory has the scrummage been so important in such a massive game; when you look at the points and what led to them being scored it completely shaped the result.
After 20 minutes I seriously questioned whether the Lions loosehead Mako Vunipola would even make it to half-time. It seemed that fate had decided his path for the biggest day of his life, and that it was one replete with anguish and pain. However, as obvious as Vunipola's destruction might have appeared to those in the stands without the benefit of a slow-motion close-up, I believe he was wrongly hammered by referee Craig Joubert. Some of the decisions were ludicrous, and they led to invaluable points being scored by the eventual one-point winners.
Many referees claim that part of a loosehead's job is to keep the tighthead up off the floor but, for me, this just gives licence for the opposing No 3 — in this case Ben Alexander — to hang his entire weight on the back of Vunipola's head and neck. This is common practice, and indeed, the stated aim of many top-class tightheads, but sometimes it goes too far.
In one early scrum I saw Alexander — a 19-stone powerhouse — effectively propel himself towards the shins of Vunipola. No prop on the planet could hold that up, and Vunipola duly received the falling weight on his neck and found his head between his knees.
Alexander was lying flat on his face, and how that saw him garner a penalty I do not know. But it all added to the impression that the Lions were struggling. So, when the Aussies shoved them backwards before the ball was in, they gained yet another penalty. And another. But since when has the early shove ceased to be an offence? Seeing the defending team permitted to shove two or three yards with no ball in sight is a new one on me.
Youngs delaying the put-in? No chance; what scrum-half in the world game would roll a ball into a prematurely retreating scrum? None would.
The scrum remained hugely important as the game wore on, with the Lions fighting back well. Ultimately it was not enough, but the character of Vunipola must not be questioned. He may not play next week if Corbisiero is fit, but he came through one hell of a test.
That big lump Lydiate was outstanding
I'll be honest, I questioned the selection of Dan Lydiate to start yesterday's match. This was primarily because it meant Tom Croft would miss out, and that all his talent would be sat on a plastic chair when it was needed on the pitch. However, I was proved very wrong.
Lydiate's tackling is Joe Worsleyesque: he is a machine designed to hunt runners and chop them down at the knees — either on the gain line or behind it — with stunning accuracy and regularity. For a big old lump, he doesn't seem to get tired either. What this meant for the team was that far fewer Australian carriers made ground close to the breakdown — a zone owned by Will Genia last week — and that team-mates like Sam Warburton were able to turn over so much more ball (an axe-felled opponent being far easier to target than one rolling forward with momentum and charging mates behind him).
Lydiate was outstanding, and he needs wrapping in cotton wool if the Lions are to do the job next week.
Boot on other foot for poor old Leigh
Once again goal-kicking proved crucial to the outcome of a big game. Gone are the days of a Jonny Wilkinson being labelled a freakish luxury — every team that hopes to win Test matches must now include at least one top-notch metronome. Leigh Halfpenny has been sensational with the boot, and was asked to kick the ball a mile to win the game. With 80 gruelling minutes in his legs he could not manage it, and the irony of last week's first-minute casualty, Christian Leali'ifano, being the man to convert Adam Ashley-Cooper's dramatic late try was not lost on the Australia squad, many of whom rushed to him as the final whistle blew. Prepare for more kicking wars next week.
Tipuric could tip Test Lions' way
Winner takes all in Sydney; I am already nervous. For the Lions, the next day or so will be about what they could have achieved before this week even arrived. For the Aussies, it will be about what an opportunity they have given themselves.
Unquestionably, the Wallabies take more momentum into the decider, but with the potential for Jamie Roberts, Alex Corbisiero and — more of a long shot — Justin Tipuric to come in, they may well have a bit to deal with. Roberts, should he play, will need to use his physical mass and intelligent line-running to give the Lions momentum. This will be made far easier if the forward pack is marching forward, and Corbisiero can achieve this. Tipuric, though, could just be the man to inspire the Lions. With Dan Lydiate scything down every gold jersey in sight, Tipuric could feast on the riches of the ground. What a game we have in store.
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