When the final whistle went in Sydney one of the first things I did was to text my old mate Graham Rowntree. That was a magical night for him, the night when it all came right and his pack set the tone for one of the great Lions performances. It was even more of a triumph for the man above him. What a night for Warren Gatland, what absolute vindication for his every decision.
Look across the team and tick off each selection he made. Richard Hibbard was brought back to add bulk and had such a strong first half. The early hit he and Alun Wyn Jones made on George Smith, potentially a major threat to the Lions, was a crucial moment. Smith can make life so difficult but that pretty much took him out of the game.
The captain, the stand-in for Sam Warburton, Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, was awesome. The big three watched from the stands in absolute admiration for the man – he was outstanding as a leader and also as a player.
As for where O’Driscoll might have been, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies had a good day, both as a unit and individuals. Any of the doubts raised over either of them, whether in terms of form or fitness or whose jersey they were perceived by some to be wearing, were banished. In the back row, the relentless Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau put in plenty of hard yards. Everywhere you looked Lions were proving Gatland made the right calls.
Whatever he or Wyn Jones said in the dressing room before the teams came out could not have worked better. Ahead of the game I highlighted the first 10 minutes as a key period and the Lions laid such strong foundations in that time. They came on to the pitch all guns blazing and were 10-0 up before the Aussies could blink.
The Wallabies always come back at you – it is the Australian way – but their captain, James Horwill, got it wrong in not looking to take points on offer in turning down a succession of kicks at goal in preference to field position.
That it was the wrong decision was made even more apparent by the solidity of the Lions’ set piece and their defence.
They did get their score with the last play of the half – this is a spirited Australian side – and the game needed that. Without that the contest would have been over before the half-time oranges had even left the plate.
It gave Australia hope but even though they closed the margin to three I was never worried about what the final outcome would be. The Lions had been so impressive in the first half and demanded so much of Australia to claw themselves back into the game.
The Lions were dominant in everything they did; the ball- carrying, the line-out, the scrum, the kicking game and made minimal errors. I was impressed by the attitude of both teams. Despite the pressure, for both teams and both coaches, each looked to play and it made for a spectacle.
Australia have used the cross-field kick to telling attacking effect in the series and, even after the loss of Israel Folau, they continued to hoist the ball towards the flanks. But the Lions defended it well and Leigh Halfpenny was outstanding in that. The Welsh full-back had a stunning all-round match to round off one hell of a season. Sometimes it can be overlooked what he brings to a team. It’s what happens when you have a guy who kicks his goals time after time. It’s like with Jonny Wilkinson – there is much more to his game than kicking. Halfpenny had a brilliant all-round match and his defence and positioning were immaculate. There was one moment where he was at full stretch, diving like a goalkeeper, to cling on to a James O’Connor kick, that summed up his performance.
Overall, the Lions played as we had wanted them to from day one of the tour. On the last day it all came right and what a night it made for – another great, great rugby night in Sydney.
This tour has been a success and it would have been so regardless of how the final Test turned out. There can be no question, the Lions truly belong in the modern game. They are a huge draw and have played a star role both financially for the Australian Rugby Union, whose coffers were given a major, much-needed boost, and for the image of the sport itself.
Rugby is under pressure here and the Lions have done wonders for the game. The appeal remains as strong as ever. I would like to see a European tour introduced in between the quadrennial southern hemisphere trips, take on France and Italy and have tour games against some of the big French clubs or select sides from the second-tier nations – it would be a massive boost for the sport in Europe. The Lions are simply good for the game.
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