Belfast Telegraph

Warren Gatland's career-defining gamble rewarded in style on historic night

By Niall Crozier

A tour which had not truly sparked into life finally did so in memorable fashion in Sydney.

Truth be told, the catalyst proved to be the controversy surrounding Warren Gatland's decision to axe Brian O'Driscoll.

In making his team announcement in Noosa before heading to Sydney, Gatland placed a metaphoric noose around his own neck and stepped onto the figurative stool in the hope that Jonathan Davies – whom he named at outside-centre in preference to O'Driscoll – would not kick it away. He didn't; instead, in tandem with fit-again Jamie Roberts, Davies played a big part in Saturday's record-shattering win.

Thus a tour which might have ended with the allegorical hanging of a coach who got it wrong instead finished in victory for him.

Gatland picked a side to win the match and they did so. First series win in 16 years? No arguing with that.

We could – though there would be little point – continue to discuss O'Driscoll's exclusion from the line-up.

Equally we could waste time and energy speculating as to whether his inclusion might have seen an even better Lions performance.

What we cannot say is that the tourists won the Test and the series because he did NOT play at ANZ Stadium.

Similarly, no-one can say the Lions would have lost had O'Driscoll featured.

What is irrefutable, though, is that Roberts and Jonathan Davies enjoyed go-forward ball the Irish centre never had in either of the first two Tests.

And the plaudits for that go to the Lions' front and back row forwards who provided the platform off which the Welsh pair were able to attack.

For the first time in the series, both scrum and line-out were outstanding, though in highlighting the importance of the first of those two set-pieces, one must also acknowledge the part played by French referee Romain Poite, the only official in the Test series to allow the Lions to scrummage.

Boy, did they enjoy the freedom denied them in particular by New Zealand's Chris Pollock in Brisbane two weeks earlier.

Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones totally outplayed Benn Robinson, Stephen Moore and Ben Alexander, with the scrum a major part of the victors' game-plan.

Corbisiero – scorer, after just 83 seconds, of the first of the Lions' four tries – excelled on the loose-head side against the hapless Alexander, forcing the Australian to cough up scrum-time penalties which finally resulted in him being yellow-carded after 24 minutes, never to return.

Given that Corbisiero was a late call-up when Cian Healy and Gethin Genkins exited through injury early in the tour, his queue-jumping of Mako Vunipola and overcoming a calf injury to be fit for the decider make his contribution all the more noteworthy.

One imagines the 24-year-old Englishman will feature on future Lions teams.

Ditto Sean O'Brien (26) who – in keeping with his name – shone, as did fellow-loose forwards Dan Lydiate (25) and Toby Faletau (22).

All three were beneficiaries of Monsieur Poite's interpretation of breakdown legality and in view of their ages they should, barring injury, figure in the party for New Zealand four years hence.

Gatland emerges with considerable credit for his use of the bench to steady things when Australia produced a 13-points burst, reeling the Lions back in from 19-3 ahead to just 19-16.

It was a damaging – indeed, potentially disastrous – spell during which one feared the wheels might be about to come off the big red bus following a magnificent start. Having scored from the penalty which resulted in Alexander's sin-binning, the Lions failed to add any further points against the 14 men.

And when the Wallabies were restored to full strength, they bagged a converted try at the end of the first half and a brace of penalties at the start of the second.

But having seen his side's lead trimmed from 16 points to just three, Gatland timed his changes to perfection, enabling the Lions to roar back courtesy of tries by Jonny Sexton, George North and Roberts with the first two of those created by Leigh Halfpenny whose 21-point contribution off the tee – three out of four conversions and a perfect five out of five penalties – created a Lions' Test match record.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Welsh full-back was quite brilliant, not only on Saturday but throughout, witness 114 tour points with a record 49 of those coming in the three Tests.

In modern parlance, naming him the Player of the Series was a no-brainer.

So, in circumstances not of his choosing, finally O'Driscoll has emerged as a proud series winner.

And while the 23 who played on Saturday will be hailed for their participation in the final Test, O'Driscoll's admirable good grace before, during and after the match from which he was omitted ensures his reputation as a Lion remains not only unblemished but enhanced.

Win, win for BOD and Gatland, it seems.

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