Sky Sports rugby union writer Tony Curtis looks back on all the highs and lows of a memorable Lions tour Down Under.
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter @SkysportsTC
Last Updated: 07/07/13 6:02pm
Ultimately, though, it delivered the much sought-after first series win since 1997 that the Lions and their legions of supporters so craved.
After one win apiece in the Tests, the series went down to a decider in Sydney - and despite the vast majority of fans, pundits and experts expecting a close game, the Lions cut loose to devastating effect.
Tries from Alex Corbisiero, Jonathan Sexton, George North and Jamie Roberts, along with 21 points from the magnificent Leigh Halfpenny sealed a record-breaking victory.
The win meant the Lions finished with an impressive record of played 10, won eight, lost two - while the likes of Halfpenny, North and Corbisiero elevated themselves to world-class status.
The tour, though, wasn't without it controversies. The standard of opposition in some of the warm-up games was laughable, the farcical situation around James
Horwill's stamp left plenty of people with red faces, while the dropping of Brian O'Driscoll caused massive divisions amongst media and supporters alike.
Injuries also ravaged the squad, with nine players parachuted in - however it is the work of the medical team that deserves special mention after Corbisiero, North, Roberts and Tommy Bowe were helped to recover from what appeared to be tour-ending injuries.
Following the completion of a memorable tour, Sky Sports looks back on all the highs and lows down under.
Player of the tour
The stock of Leigh Halfpenny continues to rise and rise. Having gone into the tour as the RBS Six Nations player of the tournament, the 24-year-old carried on his fantastic form to be named the player of the series. From six appearances, the Wales full-back weighed in with an impressive 114 points - however it was more than just his deadly accuracy with the boot that caught the eye. Halfpenny did slot over 21 conversions and 19 penalties but he also crossed for three tries. Two of those came in the rout of the Waratahs, with Halfpenny finishing with a 30-point haul. His name appears throughout the top stats of the tour, with 44 carries, five clean breaks, 16 defenders beaten, 315m made with the ball in hand and three try assists. If he could have jumped in the lineout, I am pretty sure he would have been in the lists for top takes. During the three Tests he was like a magnet to the ball - and every time Australia kicked it, it appeared to go to Halfpenny, while he provided his fair share of timely tackles.
Young player of the tour
At just 21, George North has the world at his feet. The winger was a strong contender for the overall player of the series award after a number of sensational displays. He finished the tour as the joint-top try scorer with four, with two of those crucially coming in the Tests. A hamstring injury, suffered in the 64-0 rout of the Combined Country XV, had threatened to derail his tour - but some magnificent work from the medical team had North fit and raring to go against Australia. And he repaid them with a sensational score as the Lions racked up a 23-21 victory. The Lions might have lost the second Test, however North's fireman's lift of Israel Folau while the Welshman still had the ball in hand helped to underline his cult status among Lions fans. North then won his battle with Folau in the third Test, with a thumping hit, before he scampered away for a try. Such was his impact on the Aussies that he had three players marking him late in the game, freeing the space for Jamie Roberts to score. North finished the tour having made a staggering 489m with the ball in hand, making 12 clean breaks, beating 15 defenders, 48 carries and five offloads.
Match of the tour
The rout of a strong Waratahs team and the first Test success over Australia deserve honourable mentions however the 41-16 victory over the Wallabies in Sydney will live long in the memory. The match was expected to be close and at one stage it looked like another nail-biting encounter was in store - only for the Lions to cut loose in devastating fashion. The Lions had gone in to 'The Decider' with a cloud over them after the dropping of legendary centre Brian O'Driscoll, leading to a split among the supporters. However the Lions responded in fantastic fashion with Alex Corbisiero's early try setting them on their way, while Leigh Halfpenny kept the scoreboard ticking over. A 19-3 up the Lions looked clear, but the Wallabies came storming back. They racked up 13 unanswered points so just a penalty separated the two sides. Every Lions fan must have feared the worst, however they need not have worried. Jonathan Sexton set the Lions back on their way, with George North and Jamie Roberts also crossing as the tourists raced to a record victory.
Try of the tour
Over the course of 10 matches, the Lions and their respective opposition served up some classic tries. However George North's moment of brilliance in the first Test stands out as the pick of the bunch. When Australia full-back Berrick Barnes sent his kick soaring into the Brisbane air in the 25th minute few had an idea what was to come. Admittedly it wasn't the best of up-and-unders but it was by no means the worst. However North caught the ball fairly unopposed on the Lions 10m line - with Brian O'Driscoll cleverly slowing the progress of Israel Folau. The Lions winger looked up, spotted a gap between the chasers and was away. Pat McCabe missed the first tackle, while James O'Connor could only grasp at fresh air as North powered away. Barnes had the chance to redeem himself, but he too was left on the deck as North changed direction without losing pace and rounded him with ease. In a good lesson to all budding wingers out there, North also switched the ball to his left hand to free his right hand to hand off any cover. However the cover of Will Genia was never going to get to North - and the right hand was only needed to give a cheeky point at the Australia No 9 as he crossed for the try. Luke Morahan's moment of brilliance for the Reds in the tour game against the Lions deserves a mention, too.
While the Lions can celebrate a 2-1 series success, things could have been so different if Kurtley Beale had landed his last-minute penalty during the first Test in Brisbane. The match was very much in the balance throughout. George North and Alex Cuthbert crossed for tries for the Lions, while Israel Folau responded with two tries of his own for the Wallabies. Beale's penalty with 12 minutes left cut the Lions' lead to 23-21 and the momentum was very much with the hosts. Beale had a chance to kick Australia into the lead with five minutes left after Mako Vunipola was pinged at the breakdown, however he sent his effort wide. It was a let-off for the Lions, but when referee Craig Pollock penalised the Lions scrum in the final minute it seemed improbable a kicker of Beale's calibre would miss another chance. From just inside the Lions half and bang in front of the sticks, Beale ran up to take his shot at goal - however at the pivotal moment his standing leg gave way and his kick went wide. The Lions celebrated but they knew it had been a let-off.
Main talking points
There is nothing that caused more debate among Lions fans than the decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll for the third Test. The legendary centre had appeared in three previous tours, but had yet to taste victory after losses to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. However he would miss out playing in the third Test in Sydney after head coach Warren Gatland took the brave decision to drop him. Accusations of a Welsh bias in selection were way over the top but the selections were always likely to split the tour support. O'Driscoll did little wrong on the tour, scoring three tries in his four appearances, while no one made more tackles in the two Tests. He had also skippered the side and had been in line to replace the injured Sam Warburton as captain. The Lions management knew the decision was going to cause controversy however it would ultimately prove to be irrelevant as the squad registered an historic success. And O'Driscoll can bow out of the Lions arena with the series triumph his career so deserves.
The Australia captain found himself at the centre of a media circus after his apparent stamp on Alun-Wyn Jones in the first Test. The incident was referred to a disciplinary hearing by the citing commissioner, however Horwill was cleared of wrong-doing after his argument of it being an accident was accepted. Whether you agreed with the decision or not, that should have been the end of the issue. However enter the IRB stage left, who chose to appeal the initial decision, forcing there to be a retrial. The apparent interference of the sport's governing body sparked outrage down under, with Australian media running a 'Justice for Horwill' campaign. The IRB's appeal, though, had been due to a point of law - not that that did anything to appease the Australians - and despite a second hearing, Horwill was once again cleared, freeing him to skipper the side in Sydney. The whole debacle left everyone wondering what was the point.
The future of the Lions
There was plenty of talk in the lead-up to the final Test that the Lions needed to win to secure its future. All good for soundbites and headlines, however there is little truth that the Lions were in danger of ceasing to exist despite having not won a series since 1997. The Lions brand is far too strong for it to be tossed aside. In Australia, where union faces strong competition from Aussie Rules Football and the 13-a-side code, the Lions suddenly dominated. Melbourne's Etihad Stadium, where the AFL headquarters are based, was sold out as was the likes of the Patersons Stadium in AFL stronghold of Perth. The Lions fans descended on venues in force with the 'sea of red', highlighting the desire of fans to travel around the world and spend small fortunes in support, while the host countries relish the challenge of facing them. With TV revenues, sponsorship and the boost to the economy from the influx of tens of thousands of fans, the Lions will continue to go strong regardless of whether they win, lose or draw. The Lions will travel to New Zealand in 2017 with the added motivation of overturning their 3-0 drubbing from 2005.