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Stuart Barnes on moments and calls that saw Lions beat Australia

Features Posted 8th July 2013 view comments

The 16 year wait is over. The Lions crushed Australia in Sydney, finally delivering the performance that had been promised all tour.

Overwhelming power, emanating from the scrum, a beautifully balanced back row and three tries from the backs in a nine-minute burst that must be up there with the finest 10 minutes of Lions rugby from any era.

Lions: utilised the luck that came their way with psychological strength, says Stuart

Lions: utilised the luck that came their way with psychological strength, says Stuart

It was a series Warren Gatland's men had to win. There was no scope for heroic failure as we witnessed four years ago against the then World Champions, South Africa. Australia are never weak opposition but this was a team in relative turmoil there for the taking and on Saturday night the Lions did just that.

But the road to the series triumph was a rocky one. Unforeseen events, as ever, play their fated role. Was there a more important moment of action than the collision that occurred between the charging Jonathan Davies and Wallaby debutant, Christian Leali'ifano within the first minute of the first Test?

Just as Irish fans have to accept the decision of Gatland to opt for Welsh centres, Welsh supporters should recognise, on the evidence of this game, that the best Lions back row did not include their captain. It is not a question of the best individual but the best balance. O'Brien and Lydiate provided it.

Stuart Barnes
Quotes of the week

We now know what a fine kicker the Brumbies centre is. Had he stayed on the field the odds are that Australia would have won the first Test match; the series could have been over before Gatland's men found the game to match the promises.

Lions fans like to talk about Nathan Grey's elbow on Richard Hill as the turning point in 2001, well from Australia's perspective this tour was about the legitimate clash that cost them their goal kicking centre. The Lions got lucky this time as they did not in South Africa. Stay around long enough and you see the wheel of fortune generally spins full circle.

The Lions had luck on their side but you still have to utilise it and in week three they did do brilliantly. Gatland's decision to head for the relative quiet of Noosa and allow the players a few beers in the days after the Melbourne loss was a masterstroke. The tension eased and by Thursday belief had been completely restored.

Rugby is not just about power and fitness. Psychological strength and freshness has a role to play. Gatland understands this and set out his team superbly ahead of last Saturday.

He also made the boldest call of his career in dropping Brian O'Driscoll. In the wake of a 41-point demolition there was no way the critics could do anything but doff their caps in his direction.

An Irish fan, in the middling hours of Sunday morning, was adamant that with the front foot ball the great Irishman would have done a job. Maybe he would but the point is that Roberts and Davies delivered to a capital T what was required.

Smart

The inclusion of Richard Hibbard was smart. He played no small part alongside Alex Corbisiero and Adam Jones in pulling the foundations from beneath the feet of Will Genia with a dominant scrum.

With Leigh Halfpenny as deadly as ever the Lions racked up points from scrum dominance. In the first half 16 of their 19 points came directly or indirectly from scrum free kicks or penalties.

Behind this scrum surge the Lions best balanced back row of the tour thrived. Toby Faletau stepped into the shoes of Jamie Heaslip and produced a blinder with his Welsh team mate, Dan Lydiate his usual imposing self.

But the key to the balance was the extra dynamism Sean O'Brien added on the open side. I am not suggesting that the Lions would not have won had the Tullow Tank not started but it seemed the best back row of the tour, despite the absence of the captain through injury.

Just as Irish fans have to accept the decision of Gatland to opt for Welsh centres, Welsh supporters should recognise, on the evidence of this game, that the best Lions back row did not include their captain. It is not a question of the best individual but the best balance. O'Brien and Lydiate provided it.

Behind the scrum Jonny Sexton was superb when it mattered. At 19-16 with Australia gaining momentum his cross-field kick to George North from his own 22 lifted the siege. The Lions marched up field and Sexton orchestrated and scored the try that was the beginning of the end for the Wallabies.

Jamie Roberts produced a big game performance in attack and defence. His try, slashing off the angle to take a pass from Conor Murray (a big tour improver) was everything the Lions wanted and missed when he was injured in the week before the first Test.

But injuries cannot be used to excuse the problems the Lions had offensively in the first two Tests, the Wallabies had as many major casualties - not to mention the self-inflicted wound of James O'Conor at fly half.

And behind them all was Leigh Halfpenny, imperious kicker, brilliant game reader and the man who played two huge parts in two of the three killer tries. Player of the Six Nations, the Lions series and surely IRB World Player of the Year... even they cannot get this one wrong!

Exposed

It was a tour that started on a contentious note in Hong Kong. Corporate interests threatened to swallow the essence of the Lions. In Perth, Michael Foley belittled the Lions by picking a weakened Western Force.

In Brisbane, the Reds lifted the tour with a brave and brilliant effort from a team at half strength. The Lions put in a potent performance a week later against the equally weakened Waratahs before injuries left them exposed to the Brumbies and a first defeat.

From there to the series, a series that was high on raw drama for two Tests and blessedly full of quality as the Lions put the average Australians away in Sydney.

Of the try scorers, Alex Corbisiero had recovered from a calf injury that would have seen him sent home on earlier tours; so too the hamstring injury of Jamie Roberts. George North was a major worry in the week before the Tests and Jonny Sexton was tender on his own taut hamstrings for the early part of the tour.

A major congratulation is due to James Robson and his medical team who worked around the clock to get the players on the field, and fit enough to win a series.

On Saturday they took the field, fit and raring and they did the Lions, their countries, friends and families proud. If they can start the Test series against the All Blacks in 2017 as they finished this one they could follow in the footsteps of the most famous Lions team of all, the 71 Lions and beat the All Blacks in their own yard.

Four years is a long time and a huge amount of rugby stands between now and then but after Saturday night in Sydney Lions fans can dare to dream. 35,000 of them supported their team brilliantly and in splendid humour, their team made the journey worthwhile. Dreams can become realities, now and then.

I'll be back with the usual dose of reality some time in late August. Right now I am off for some R&R. Hope you enjoyed the tour and thanks for your interest all season.

Stuart Barnes

Comments (7)

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Neil Williams says...

Hi Stuart With the recent announcement that the 2014 heineken and amlin cup finals are to be played in cardiff AGAIN. Why is that the rugby bosses canoot consider taking the finals elsewhere because in last few years its been a cardiff or twickenham roadshow. Why hasnt the finals gone to somewhere like olympic stadium in Rome yet or perhaps brussels, amsterdam or barcelona somewhere different that would help promote rugby and show that is it a proper european tournament played in other european countries what are your thoughts please Neil, Essex

Posted 16:13 17th July 2013

Hywel Daniel says...

Stuart - I think this is a fairly well-balanced article. The glaring omission, however, is your failure to take back some of the pretty awful, and utterly unbalanced comments you made before the match. Your assessment of the dropping of O'Driscoll was pretty unambiguous, in fact you referred to it at one point on the final test preview programme as a "catastrophic" error - not even prefixed by the word "potentially". I think Gatland has shown that decision to be entirely justified, and can feel entirely vindicated, and while you have mentioned this, it is very brief given the vehemence with which you made this assessment prior to the match. In addition to this, your scathing assessment of the Welsh players in the squad, and their failure to beat Australia over the last couple of years, was unfair, and also put in a very insulting way. You seemed to forget that the same Welsh contingent, along with some considerable input from English and Irish counterparts, had beaten Australia two weeks earlier, and lost by a point (with a few notable absentees) a week earlier. I think, if anything, Gatland has proven how brave he is prepared to be in the face of some of the so-called experts who are very keen to criticise his selections before they have seen the results. I almost got the impression from you and various others (Austin Healy for example), that you wanted the Lions to lose, simply so you could continue your critique. I think that can also be seen in the tone of this article, in which you seem to attempt to play down the significance of this series win. Ultimately, your comments pre and post made will fade into insignificance - whereas the series win will remain in history. We will see in years to come what becomes of this Australia team, which may provide fresh perspective on the Lions' collective success. Roll on 2017!!

Posted 11:52 12th July 2013

Steve Jones says...

Hi Stuart, I would like to challenge you on your comment "Just as Irish fans have to accept the decision of Gatland to opt for Welsh centres, Welsh supporters should recognise, on the evidence of this game, that the best Lions back row did not include their captain" You are not comparing apples for apples on this. Regarding O'Brien (who was outstanding by the way), had the benefit of being on the front foot. His backrow partners, Lidiate and Faleau are significant threats at breakdown, neither play as loose as Heaslip and Croft so O'Brien had greater support in the contact area. Also I feel the Australia made two critical mistakes, one being starting George Smith (an all time great but the pace and intensity of the game has changed), the second keeping him on after the Hibbard collision. I believe Sam Warburton would have thrived in that environment. O'Driscoll's omission was tactical more than personal. Gatland chose combinations in critical areas, one being at 8 & 9, the other at 12 & 13. The game plan was always based on power, if Roberts only lasted the first 15 minutes he had to guarantee a similar power player could replace him, the lions in the first and second test were too lateral and that was due to the form outside centres playing. Tuilagi runs direct and hard, Jonathan Davies is very adept at picking lines of such runners and therefore just edged O'Driscoll in the starting line up. Finally, I have very much enjoyed your analysis and Sky's coverage of what is now a legendary sporting event.

Posted 12:27 9th July 2013

Mike Morgan says...

Stuart Barnes stop with the could have, would have, should have. Australia are without doubt a world top three side that do not give games away easily. The Lions were NOT lucky they were simply better. The series win was NOT because of a poor Australian side but because of a dominant better Lions side. Australia were outclassed. With regards to your comments on the fact that the whole tour was not electric please grow up and realise that to win down under is a huge ask of any team especially a team that has only been together for 8 weeks. Please be more considerate to the extremely brave and talented Lions squad who left all they had out on the field for us all to enjoy a classic Lions Tour victory!

Posted 21:42 8th July 2013

Rhod Lewis says...

Barnes, The reason that the 'best back row of the Tour' did not include Sam Warburton is simple; the presence of Toby Faletau doing what No.8s are supposed to do...ball carrying and getting over the gainline. Not playing wingers.

Posted 19:56 8th July 2013

Barry Stocken says...

Well done the Lions, but the Lions should always win when the figures are taken into account!. There are nearly 3 million players in the home countries as opposed to a mere 86 000 in Australia.(approx. figures). So does this mean that most Lions' teams under perform?

Posted 10:18 8th July 2013

William Sheldrake says...

This series win is the more memorable when you compare this whole tour with the 1997 Lions. The lead-in time was minimal - half the squad was not available until after the first match - and the opposition they faced was largely below-strength. As a result, Gatland and his assistant had insufficient time to assess individual players, let alone weld them into combinations and, in effect, when coupled with the injuries which the squad sustained, the first two Tests were trial matches. It was only in the 3rd Test that the Lions could field their best XV. So this series win really is the stuff of legends.

Posted 09:28 8th July 2013

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