Most of the time admitting I was wrong is a far from happy occasion however Saturday morning it was positively joyous – the Lions had won and won handsomely. I really didn’t think they could pull it off.
Gatland had made a number (6 I think) changes from the team that lost in the second test and several of the changes made significant differences. In the backrow O’Brian had a monster of a game racking up a huge tackle count and carried the ball aggressively. Faletau likewise carried the ball a huge amount. As a consequence Warburton was not missed at all (good tackler but only rarely carries) and Faletau brought more to the table than Hislip. And as for losing thie rcaptain (Warburton) well A-W Jones did a marvellous job and led by example.
At scrum half Gatland has had no idea what his best option was and opted for Phillips but as before he still looked pedestrian and when he went off (Murray coming on) things sharpened up.
In the centre Roberts was back and Davies retained at O’Driscoll’s expense. The press have been apoplectic about BOD being dropped but today’s result showed it was the right choice. The Welsh centres are very familiar with each others play and Roberts size is a weapon – the opposition are frightened when he gets the ball and that fear opens up the opportunities for his partner.
There is a saying that a game is won or lost in the forwards with the backs only determining by how much. This game really did pan out that way. This was in part due to the front row (Hibbard and Corbisaro in for Tom Youngs and Vunipola though both were retained on the bench) but was also down to the ref Roman Poite who penalised the Australian front row and Alexander in particular relentlessly (correctly in my mind).
In the second test it took the ref a long time to realise the scrum going down was not due to Vunipola but Alexander but on Saturday Poite was onto him straight away.
Alexander props with his shoulder low – below his hips – and he has a rounded back this means on impact he will be driving the opposite prop downwards often causing the opposite prop to FOLD. Refs who don’t understand what is going on consequently award a penalty against the folding prop (Vunipola in the second test) when in reality his only guilt is not be able to resist a half a tonne of downwards pressure with his back.
Corbisaro packs down with his shoulders level with his hips so as to drive straight but where he has the advantage over Vunipola is he takes up a position with a clearly observable hollow back. This helps resist the downward drive of Alexander (though can’t stop it) but most importantly it shows the ref it is not him driving down.........so he wins the penalty. Alexander’s problem is that if he hits level he’s not strong enough against the best props and goes backwards and gets penalised, so he goes for the downward hit and hopes the refs don’t understand what is going on.
Corbisaro is a better prop than Vunipola but the advantage to the Lions would have been lost without a ref with Poite’s knowledge and willingness to penalise Alexander relentlessly and to the extent that he sent him to the sin bin for 10 minutes. The Aussie coaches saw the writing was on the wall and he didn’t come back on.
Also in the second test the Aussie pushed hard before the ball came in (Illegal) but it was the Lions who were penalised for delaying the put in. Again Poite would have none of it and penalised Aus for early hits and pushing early. At last there was a ref who knew and was happy to apply the rules as written.......and the Lions prospered.
So on to the game.
Things couldn’t have started better for the Lions. Genia knocked on, scrum, Aus penalised, free kick to Lions, Philips takes quick tap and several plays later Corbisaro scores a try by the posts – 7 points and we are only 90 seconds into the match. Welcome back Corbisaro – already a contender for man of the match!
The next 20 minutes had a sameness about it. The match was dominated by the scrum with Aussie pack being penalised (normally Alexander but not exclusively) at just about every one giving the Lions field position and loads of points. The final penalty Alexander gave away hoisted the Lions to 19-3 ahead, reduced the Aussies to 14 men as Alexander was sin binned and it looked as if it was going to be plain sailing for the Lions. But no, the Aussies have to spoil the party and started to play a bit. Whilst down to 14 men the Aussies didn’t concede a point and when back to full strength started to threaten. Approaching half time the Aussies were awarded a series of penalties where they kicked to the corner and this eventually lead to O’Connor wriggling over with Leali’ifano converting. It was now 19-10 and half time.
Second half and the Aussies keep coming. As they are now they are in touch on the scoreboard they start to kick the penalties their pressure is bringing, 19-13 then 19-16 and I must admit I though the Lions were going to clutch defeat from the jaws of victory but.....
Youngs came on for Hibbard (who’d had a strong game) and immediately starts doing what he does best - scrambling around tackling anything that moves. Lions get a scrum, penalty and needless to say Halfpenny kicks the points. 22-16........
Connor Murray on for Philips (who has not had a good game) and Cole of for Adam Jones (very strong in the scrum as normal and an important part of the domination we’d enjoyed in that area).
It was around this point that the Lions started playing with a bit more confidence behind the scrum. A few thrusts by the forwards up the middle then Davies steps out of a tackle, moves the ball out to Halfpenny who runs it into the Aussie 22 then passes inside to Sexton and TRY. My lounge erupted. The neighbours must have thought “what the fcuk is going on in there “......then I calmed down and sat down. Halfpenny converts 29-16.......surely this must be a winning score!
Next significant phase of play is on the Lions line but they hold out.
Farrell on for Sexton. Now Sexton looked decidedly miffed about this but Farrell has kept the bench warm the entire series and has been very positive in his support of the team so I was glad he got on. Pretty petty of Sexton really; it’s the strength of the squad that wins tours like these and anyway Sexton has looked pretty ordinary for most of the tour including this match. Anyway almost immediately the Lions score (though Farrell had nothing to do with it). The Aussies kicked out of defence and Halfpenny ran at them (the backs now getting confident), he breaks down the outside then feeds North who runs it in from the 22 without a hand being landed on him. Halfpenny converts 34-16. Only a quiet eruption in the lounge this time. The game is definitely won now.
Vunipola on for Corbisaro (who had a great game).
Robert scores a try of beautiful simplicity. The Lions were attacking near the Aussie 22. Murray gets the ball, delays the pass just for a moment before flicking the ball to Roberts who’s running flat out on a superb line and goes over more or less unopposed. Absolutely brilliant. Halfpenny converts 41-16 and the route is complete. The Aussies had been stuffed up front and the backs finished them off.
The remaining subs come on and time runs out without any further score. Lions win the series.
What a difference a week makes.
I know I’ve been pessimistic about the Lions but they gave me a lot to be pessimistic about .......until the last 30 minutes of the tour. I’m still left wondering what would have happened if Poite wasn’t the ref though. He got the scrum right and allowed the Lions to compete at the breakdown (unlike Pollock – ref of the first match). It’s wrong that the outcome of a match should be so dependent on who refs the match, after all they all have the same rule book. Still today it worked in our favour and that will do.