All eyes were on Sydney this weekend as the British and Irish Lions ended a 16-year wait for a series win, powering to a 41-16 victory over Australia, and taking the deciding game of the series. Coach Warren Gatland’s team selection came under extreme scrutiny and criticism last week, but his charges rewarded him for his faith, and outplayed Australia comprehensively over the 80 minutes. Tries for Alex Corbisiero, Jonathan Sexton, George North and Jamie Roberts secured the victory for the Lions, whilst the unerring boot of Leigh Halfpenny added some much deserved gloss to the score line.
If there was one area of the side which had not come in for criticism during the previous week, it was the ability of the side to gain the upper hand at the scrum, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. Not only was the front row of Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones responsible for winning ball on 100% of their own scrums, but they also won ball against the head on Australia’s first three scrums, and generally gave their opposite numbers hell throughout the game. The lineout, an area of concern with Hibbard’s form so far on the tour, was also potent, and although the Lions didn’t quite enjoy the same dominance as they did at the scrum, they still arguably outperformed Australia. The breakdown was another area the Lions dominated, and although some of this could be attributed to a dazed looking George Smith, who never looked to truly recover from a shuddering head collision with Hibbard early on, praise should be heaped upon a back row unit of Dan Lydiate, Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau, all of whom were colossal in terms of their work rate.
The backs also had a game to remember, despite struggling for fluency slightly in a first half dominated by their pack, but certainly turned in a more effective performance in the second half, helping the Lions break away from Australia and secure victory. Sexton and Halfpenny both turned in their best performances of the tour, whilst the return of Roberts was a breath of fresh air for the Lions, who had struggled to break the gain line consistently in the last two tests.
Halfpenny deservedly picked up the ‘Man of the Series’ accolade, but undoubtedly fought off stiff competition from both North and Tom Youngs, both of whom also didn’t put a foot wrong on the tour, and all three have written themselves into Lions folklore with their performances over the last few weeks. Picking the ‘Man of the Match’ would have been an unenviable task with so many players performing at their very highest, not least so Halfpenny and Corbisiero, but it would have been very hard to ignore Alun Wyn Jones, as the captain led his side wonderfully, and certainly lived up to the pressure that was unexpectedly hoisted upon his shoulders.
Try of the Week goes to Jonathan Sexton, as it established a significant lead over the Australians, and effectively opened the flood gates, allowing the Lions to canter to a victory in the final quarter of the match. The offload from Halfpenny to Sexton in the build-up certainly deserved praise too.
Hero and Villain of the Week both go to Warren Gatland. Considering Gatland has just delivered the first Lions series win in 16 years, he is in reality not deserving of the title ‘Villain’ but there were really no other options. His team selection has been vindicated 100% by the result, but few would have been able to hold back a lump in their throat when the camera panned to the on-watching Brian O’Driscoll in the stands. Never afraid to be a controversial figure, Gatland made the tough calls few others would have had the courage to make, and as such is far more of a ‘Hero’ than a ‘Villain’. Odds are favourable that Gatland will have a role in the 2017 tour of New Zealand, but whether that’s as Lions supremo, or in a role with his home nation, only time will tell.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)