So many superlatives have been thrown the way of the young Welsh full-back in the wake of a sublime string of performances on tour, carrying on from a hugely impressive Six Nations campaign. He handled the tremendous pressure of the goal-kicking duties with ease, and although he will have been disappointed not to stop Israel Folau in the series opener, his tackling was otherwise solid. In defence, his excellent covering and positional play (particularly in the final test) allowed him to comfortably field kicks from hand, preventing the Wallabies from gaining territory, and thus providing a dangerous counter-attacking base for his side. Although many of these punts fell distinctly into the “average” category, Halfpenny’s reading of the game allowed him to show his prowess with ball in hand, cutting loose to provide two brilliant assists for the tries that sealed the series.
With the scrum proving such a pivotal battleground in all three test matches, the Englishman played a crucial role in winning penalties and quality first-phase possession for the Lions. Alongside the powerful duo of Richard Hibbard and veteran Adam Jones, he decimated the Wallaby front row in the final showdown, consistently providing Halfpenny with three-point opportunities – one of which also resulted in a yellow card for Australian tighthead Ben Alexander. He showed up well in the loose, setting the Lions on their way with a try in the second minute in Sydney, and was dynamic and abrasive with ball in hand. His performance on tour, particularly in that deciding fixture, was made all the more impressive following a domestic season marred by injury, and indeed a calf strain having kept him out of the second test.
The hulking winger engaged in a ferocious physical battle with Folau, and proved himself – on his day – virtually unplayable in attack. With the Wallabies bereft of their most competent midfield defender in Pat McCabe, North exerted a telling influence on their defensive play. His support lines and decoy runs were of such great concern to the hosts that they often left gaps for his teammates to exploit. A magnificent solo effort in week one of the series was followed up a fortnight later by a more straightforward finish. Without the ball, he put in some huge hits in his own 22, one of them (on Ben Mowen) almost certainly saving a try. He ensured that the lasting image from this Lions tour will not be that of the visiting captains holding aloft the Tom Richards Trophy – rather North subjecting Folau to the same fate.
The self-confessed “workhorse” of the pack was exactly that. He tirelessly offered himself as a ball-carrying option, repeatedly crossing the gain line and getting the Lions on the front foot. In defence, he put in tackle after tackle, and his ability to cause the Wallabies problems at the breakdown was very impressive, although not altogether surprising from a man who prides himself on being as active around the pitch as a blindside flanker. Despite speculation in the media and among supporters surrounding his suitability to take on the burden of captaincy for the “decider”, he led his charges by example in Syndey, putting in a near-perfect second row performance. His sheer work rate and willingness to take on the less glamorous aspects of forward play see him among the very best locks in the Northern Hemisphere, and when combined with Paul O’Connell, presented a truly formidable partnership with which to implement Gatland’s power-centric game plan.
Though question marks were raised over his defence – particularly in the wake of James O’Connor’s third-test try – the Irish stand-off had a solid series. With only Owen Farrell and the out of position Stuart Hogg rivalling him for the number ten jersey, the pressure was on Sexton to come up with the goods. Although there were few flashes of brilliance – barring a sumptuous crossfield chip in Sydney gathered by the onrushing North –perhaps owing to his playing for the most part in a largely unfamiliar backline, he consistently did the basics well, and controlled that deciding fixture with an impressive show of game management.
Sam Warburton – back to his disruptive best, and was the outstanding player of the second test. Desperately unlucky to miss the third through injury – not that his team seemed to miss him.
Conor Murray – showed in his substitute appearances a striking blend of power and guile, and may consider himself unfortunate not to have started in place of Mike Phillips in Sydney.
Adam Jones – the furry-faced stalwart of the Welsh pack proved once more why he is rightly regarded among the best tightheads in world rugby.
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)