Belfast Telegraph

British and Irish Lions savour the pure joy of momentous win

AUSTRALIA 16 LIONS 41

By Conor George

A night of extravagant entertainment marked one of the most momentous achievements in Lions' history – a first Series win since 1997 and a first win against Australia since 1989.

The joy and spirit of celebration that followed the Lions' memorable triumph was, however, tinged inevitably with a green shadow of regret.

Sure, there was every reason to feel proud and excited at the contributions of Jonathan Sexton, Sean O'Brien, Tommy Bowe and Conor Murray to the Lions' stunning victory in Sydney but it was impossible not to experience a sense of loss that stemmed from the absence of a number of Irish players of substance.

Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Cian Healy, Simon Zebo, Rory Best and Tom Court all wore the red Lions shirt on this tour but nothing matches being part of the winning team in adecisive Test.

Warren Gatland drew the ire of the Irish when he decided to go into the decisive match without the incomparable O'Driscoll. Injuries had taken O'Connell and Healy out of contention but the decision to omit O'Driscoll from the squad – never mind from the team – earned Gatland the title of "Public Enemy No.1" from Ireland's rugby fans.

The result, however, and especially the spectacular performance that provided such a memorable climax to the Series, doesn't necessarily make his decision to go to battle without O'Driscoll the right one but the coach must be afforded due credit for the achievement and for having the courage of his convictions.

This Lions' Series was about winning. That is what the coach was charged with achieving and duly delivered. No Lions coach is ever going to be able to keep every player and all four nations happy but Gatland deserves the plaudits for the triumph.

What was truly astonishing about Saturday night's performance was that the Lions finally played some rugby. It must be acknowledged just how poor Australia were but the Lions were superb at times.

They dominated the scrum and it surely wasn't a coincidence that their best performance in this department came when the game was refereed by an official who plies his trade in the northern hemisphere.

Romain Poite allowed the Lions to scrummage in the manner in which they operate in the Six Nations' Championship and the Heineken Cup and a startling mis-match was exposed.

They blew Australia away and the flow of points that stemmed from the referee's decisions quickly assumed the proportions of a flood.

Australia looked on with puzzlement when, after a previous warning, they had prop forward Alexander yellow-carded in the 25th minute for his third infringement at the scrum. It was a seminal moment in the game.

The biggest testament to the Lions and their performance was in the way they reacted to the Australians coming to within three points of them five minutes after the re-start. So fragile were the Lions in terms of leaders the fear was they would implode. Instead they exploded into life with three tries in 12 minutes to obliterate their hosts.

The manner of the Lions' victory has inevitably led to the suggestion that they can now look to the 2017 Tour of New Zealand with confidence and with a real belief they can legitimately target the most coveted scalp of all.

"If we get things right in terms of the preparation I think the Lions can certainly look at a Series win in New Zealand," said Kiwi native Gatland (pictured).

"I said to a lot of the players this afternoon, if you look at how young this squad is, a lot of them could be around in four years' time. If they're playing well enough and you've got four more years' experience on some young heads, some young shoulders, and they're in their late twenties, that potentially makes the Lions squad in four years' time incredibly strong."

It is, perhaps, somewhat fanciful to suggest that one truly creditable performance out of three Tests will give rise to such ambitions but that was the mood within the Lions' camp yesterday.

If they are to have any hope of building on this success there will need to be changes to how they prepare, Gatland emphasised. These changes will need to include rescheduling the finals of the Celtic and Premiership leagues as well as the European finals.

"Having the Premiership and Rabo finals on 24 hours before we flew to Hong Kong is not conducive to optimum preparation," said Gatland.

"The season needs to be adjusted a little so that we can spend a couple of weeks together in the UK and Ireland in terms of preparing properly. That means there has to be a negotiation with the southern hemisphere to push things back in terms of the number of lead up games.

There is no denying the success of this tour to Australia. At times some of the rugby wasn't of a great quality and the Lions were lucky to be still in the contest after the first two Tests.

The Series, the way the Lions team played and the whole Tour had its flaws.

For now, though, it's enough to reflect on a first Series win in 16 years and that some of Ireland's true greats are finally Lions' Series winners.

Australia: K Beale, I Folau (J Mogg 27), A A Cooper, C Leali'ifano, J Tomane, J O'Connor, W Genia (N Phipps 70), B Robinson (J Slipper 66), S Moore (S Fainga'a 73), B Alexander (K Skepoe 27) K Douglas (R Simmons 62), J Horwill, B Mowen, G Smith (M Hooper 67), W Palu (B McCalman 60).

Lions: L Halfpenny, T Bowe, J Davies, J Roberts (M Tuilagi 69), G North, J Sexton (O Farrell 63), M Phillips (C Murray 51), A Corbisiero (M Vunipola 68), R Hibbard (T Youngs 47), A Jones (D Cole 55), G Parling (R Gray 68), A W Jones, D Lydiate, S O'Brien (J Tipuric 59), T Faletau.

Referee: R Poite, FFR.

Jonathan Bradley's Scorecard

Lions

Leigh Halfpenny: Seemed to be under every ball when Australia kicked deep before exploding in the latter stages with two inspired bursts. 9

Tommy Bowe: Gained valuable metres in the build-up to the opening try but on occasion his clever lines were negated by handling errors. 6

Jonathan Davies: Said he felt like "public enemy number one" in the build-up but responded with a much stronger performance. 8

Jamie Roberts: Making his return from injury, the centre was quiet in the opening stages but grew in influence before contributing a late try. 7

George North Showed startling physicality with a big tackle on Folau and benefited from Halfpenny's work when he ran over for the third try. 7

Jonathan Sexton: Clever and composed display that, while highlighted by his try, should be remembered for a considerable degree of guile. 9

Mike Phillips: Quick tap and go penalty that ultimately produced a try for Corbisiero set the tone for a blistering opening quarter. 6

Alex Corbisiero: Powered over the line with less than two minutes on the clock and was the vital cog in an over-powering Lions scrum. 9

Richard Hibbard: Justified his spot with a display that saw him front up in the scrums and make hits like a man possessed in the loose. 8

Adam Jones: The tighthead was as technically supreme in the scrum as ever and gave Robinson a chastening he will not soon forget. 8

Alun Wyn Jones: Captained the side with typical gusto and led by example with some punishing carries and huge tackles. 9

Geoff Parling: Tap-tackle thwarted Mogg when the Aussie debutant was threatening and his calls in the line-out were generally successful. 7

Dan Lydiate: One of Gatland's favourite sons, justified his selection with a showing that was comprised of countless tackles and runs. 8

Sean O'Brien: First to every breakdown and a constant menace for Australia as he ensured the Genia-O'Connor axis had a torrid evening. 8

Toby Faletau: Forced a crucial turnover under his own posts that proved a pivotal moment in the series victory. 8

Australia

Kurtley Beale: Posed the Lions problems with his direct running and, for all the talk of his fitness, his was one of the last heads to drop. 6

Israel Folau: Limped off clutching his hamstring after just 27 minutes and was the victim of another huge tackle from George North. 5

Adam Ashley-Cooper: Australia's most consistent and reliable performer during the series, the centre once again put in a solid effort. 6

Christian Leali'ifano: Kicked his goals nervelessly and his ability with the boot made Horwill's decision to chase the game early all the more baffling. 6

Joe Tomane: Again failed to get to grips with the game, his main contribution was a block on Sean O'Brien in the build-up to O'Connor's try. 4

James O'Connor: While he still does not convince at fly-half, he brought Australia back into the game with a fleet-footed try. 5

Will Genia: Uncharacteristic error at the opening kick-off gifted the Lions possession and ultimately led to the Corbisiero try. 4

Benn Robinson: The Wallabies could ill-afford his penalty-ridden display in the scrum after he had no answer to the power of Adam Jones. 3

Stephen Moore: Performed passably in the loose but could do nothing to redress the scrum imbalance when up against Richard Hibbard. 4

Ben Alexander: After having the beating of Mako Vunipola last week, he was destroyed by Alex Corbisiero at scrum time. 2

James Horwill: Villain of the series in the eyes of Lions fans and there will be many enjoying the criticism the Australia skipper is sure to receive. 4

Kane Douglas: Another mixed day for the young lock and he was hauled off by Deans just as the game started to slip away from his side. 5

Ben Mowen: The best performer in green and gold on the day, he battled well at the breakdown and deserved more rewards for his effort. 8

George Smith: Somehow was allowed to carry on after what appeared to be a shuddering head collision with Richard Hibbard early on. 5

Wycliff Palu: Another solid performance that will go unnoticed due to the final score. Tackled well and carried when given the chance. 6

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