Victory based on complete team performance

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Lions are indeed formidable. What a glorious victory. They not only played with pride, but as a pride. Advances in the professional game in the Home Nations have been distilled into this Lions' side, producing a heady cocktail that the Australians could not stomach.

This was a magnificent display of rugby union, an expedition of power, pace and skill which subdued the reigning world champions.

The Lions were inspired by the occasion – and no doubt spurred on that little bit more by the criticism they had received locally where their credentials (and worse) have been openly queried.

For 60 minutes, by which time the game was won, Martin Johnson and his men were rampant, attacking relentlessly, and with power, to release the game-breaking flair of Jason Robinson and Brian O'Driscoll, together with some pulsating running from hooker Keith Wood and No 8 Scott Quinnell in the loose. But it took a team effort to do this.

The Lions played with great collective ability and will to win, with no weak links evident. Those players drafted in for the crop of casualties did not look at all out-of-place, indeed the opposite applied and Martin Corry especially had a huge game on the blind side.

For the first hour the Lions won good ball systematically. Their set pieces worked well and the edge they have in the scrums was clear for all to see. At the line-out, Corry provided an extra jumper which was well exploited.

In the loose, Richard Hill measured up well as he found himself once again back on the open-side flank, a position in which he first played for England. As a direct result of his experience, the threat of that very promising Wallaby George Smith was substantially negated.

As expected, Smith was ubiquitous, popping up everywhere he was not wanted or welcome by the Lions. However the young flanker was poorly supported by his more cumbersome back row colleagues, in particular Toutai Kefu and Owen Finegan, and his efforts more often than not came to nought.

In any case, these days ball-winning in the loose is for the nearest two or three players, and here the Lions were much quicker in support. As a result, Smith sometimes found himself isolated and driven back.

So for a lengthy period it was slow ball for Australia all round. Obviously they had anticipated that their scrum would creak under pressure, with Kefu at No 8 designated to play the ball off the ground to scrum-half George Gregan to avoid the threat from the Lions' No 9 Rob Howley.

The Wallabies' line-out, with only two jumpers in John Eales and David Giffen, was always watchful of the menace from Johnson and his second row partner Danny Grewcock. It is a feature – one to the betterment of today's game – that the line-outs are once again being contested, as a result teams need options to help them win the ball cleanly.

Naturally, the throw-in has to be even more precise and, in this particular sphere, Wood did better than either of the Wallaby hookers, Jeremy Paul and his eventual replacement, Michael Foley.

Thus the Lions flourished, the better quality of ball they were able to win feeding their style of play. Forward power was allied with width for the backline, allowing them to create opportunities for their match-winning players.

They gained untold psychological advantage with a try early in each half, both of them sizzling efforts from Robinson and O'Driscoll. And the scoring of four tries in all was based on good use of possession which was well directed by the Lions' half backs, Rob Howley and, at stand-off, by Jonny Wilkinson.

The former had his best game for some time at Test level, taking advantage of a pack that was invariably going forward but still reading every situation and making good decisions that were then executed extremely well. He served the cause marvellously, not least by taking some of the burden of decision-making off Wilkinson, who was the focus of much of the opposition's attention.

In contrast, with key players under-performing, Australia were made to look ponderous and out-of-sorts during that first critical hour. Restricted to slow ball and in the face of some well-organised and unrelenting Lions defence, the Wallabies could attain no real momentum.

During this torrid spell for the home team their handling game flickered only intermittently. The centre pairing of Nathan Grey and Daniel Herbert especially looked distinctly limited. Australia could obtain no attacking field positions, and without that to build on, they were reduced to nervous, inaccurate kicking downfield, which was comfortably dealt with by the Lions.

Nor were the Wallabies able to keep the scoreboard ticking over with penalties, because, after an easy one to start with, Andrew Walker then fell away under the pressure of the occasion. This failure was not unexpected given his lack of experience – not that Matthew Burke did any better when he replaced full-back Chris Latham at half-time.

Wilkinson also made a poor start with the boot, but found his renowned accuracy later, providing a further advantage for the Lions to help accumulate the match-winning total of 29 points by the end of the first hour. And it was just as well that the Newcastle stand-off did, because the pendulum of psychological advantage then swung towards Australia.

With the Lions suddenly conceding a spate of penalties, the Wallabies forsook the three points each time, instead opting to kick for touch. Only then were they able to build up concerted attacks from an improved flow of possession. Finally, the Australians were able to establish their more familiar attacking rhythm, playing through the phases and probing the Lions' cover until they found the openings to score two very well worked tries.

That rash of penalties will be of concern to the tourists' management, but it has to be remembered that referees do get sensitive to perceived killing of the ball by defenders in the so-called 'red zone' – that area that is up to 10 metres out from the try-line.

Overall though, I thought that the South African official Andre Watson managed the game very well, and sympathetically. It was a match that was played in great spirit, one that allowed both sides to display their talents.

The Australians may take encouragement from the last 20 minutes, although the game was effectively over by then. Were they rusty with only one game together under their belts as a warm-up? Or did this performance merely reinforce the suspicion that their overhaul of personnel has created a side that now lacks the mental edge and the ability?

That won't concern the Lions. Martin Johnson's men were indisputably kings on the day and, with injured players returning, will have selection problems of the right sort for the critical second Test next Saturday.

Comments