Sport seems to be defined by small four year cycles after which one is either in the height of ecstasy or crippled by dejection and pain. The Lions tour reached its highly anticipated conclusion on Saturday with the aim to banish four lumps of four years; the time passed since the last series win. On Saturday 6th June, in Sydney, the scene of Lions woes twelve years previously, history was made, and the series won. In a dominating performance, Britain and Ireland roared to a demolishing 41-16 victory that had hardly looked on the cards all tour.
Building up to the match, one could be forgiven for a few pre game nerves, not withstanding the players. Two weeks before, the first test had come down to the final kick of the match, only for Kurtley Beale to pull up short for the Wallabies (23-21); if he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all. A week later, the roles were reversed, this time Leigh Halfpenny was denied a series win for the Lions; the second test again coming down to the last kick (16-15). Twelve years passed, but the scenario seemed hauntingly familiar: two tests down, all square.
With all the Wallaby pre match talk circling round captain James Horwill and his narrow escape from the IRB (his alleged stamp on Alun Wyn Jones cleared), the Lions talk was of a less surprising but no less controversial topic. Brian O’Driscoll, so influential for Lions, Ireland, Leinster and pretty much any side he has ever played for, was dropped by coach Warren Gatland in favour of Jonathan Davies. Youth and form being preferred to excellence, it showed us a glimpse of Gatland’s thinking behind the final test. It would have to pay off.
Onto the pitch both teams ran and the atmosphere from nearly an hour pre match was tense. Upon kickoff it was clear that the Lions had brought their A game with them. A knock on from Will Genia gave the Lions a first minute scrum. Front row Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones set the tone for the evening by driving the Wallabies back at a rate of knots. From then on, a penalty followed and after repeated barrages at the Australian line, Corbisiero rolled over and touched down before the second minute. Halfpenny converted and soon after slotted a penalty to make it 10-0. Chrstian Leali’ifano reduced the deficit from the restart however as the Wallabies tried to get themselves back in the game; the hosts left stunned after 10 minutes. But if Australia were to get any hold on the match, they would have to sort out their scrummaging issues. Pushed back at twice the velocity than the first one, the Wallabies infringed again; Halfpenny added the three points to increase the Lions’ lead (13-3).
Two more penalties made it 19-3 approaching half time. Australia were eager to make some inroads into the deficit. Handling errors and a lack of composure meant that they were chasing the game early on. But they struck before the break. Having turned down countless 3 point chances, James Horwill was vindicated as heavy pressure and slick side stepping from James O’Connor reduced the gap to 19-10. The young out-half dotted the ball down under the posts, brilliant evading oncoming tackles to bring his side back into contention.
Leali’ifano landed two early second half penalties to close the gap even further. The Lions, looking nervous now, started to make more unforced errors and at 19-16, the game was hanging in the balance. The Wallabies looked fresher and more powerful as they stormed into Lions territory. Halfpenny however managed to calm British and Irish nerves by slotting another penalty 5 minutes later. The game was about to open up.
Suddenly, with a bit of breathing space, the Lions looked more asserted in attack. Using both territory and possession to their advantage, they struck at the right moment, and some slick back line work put Halfpenny into space. Jinking through Aussie defence, he then neatly slipped the ball back to Sexton to go in unchallenged under the posts. Halfpenny converted to extend the tourists’ lead to 29-16.
The hosts, having looked dangerous at the beginning of the half began to push the game, presumably having seen the game start to slip away. But the intent was still there, as they attempted to bulldoze their way into Lions territory. However dangerous O’Connor and Genia looked, they were unfortunately turned over at crucial moments. If they were to win, they would have to control possession. The Lions then struck once more. A loose clearance kick from Genia only found Halfpenny who led a brilliant counter attack, slipping through two defenders before setting up George North to scamper in at the corner; the game, and the series surely now settled.
With the Wallabies now looking deflated in attack and defence, the Lions were once again back in Aussie territory. 10 minutes remained and from a set piece lineout, Jamie Roberts – picking a sublime angle from Connor Murray’s pass – burst through O’Connor, Michael Hooper and Joe Tomane to seal the series victory. The Lions fans went into raptures as did the coaching staff and players on the side line. Australia tried hard to salvage something from the final 5 minutes but all in vane. More pressure from the Lions meant the Wallabies were strangled in their 22. A cheeky chip ahead from Owen Farrell (on for Sexton) nearly put Tommy Bowe in for a fifth try but for a knock on. 41-16 the final score, and a tight, tense and ultimately thrilling test series ended 2.1 for the British and Irish Lions; their first tour win since the 1997 heroes.