I was tempted to write something in the immediate aftermath of the Lions win on Saturday, but given the state of elation I was experiencing at the time, it would probably have gone something along the lines of ‘WHOOOOH!!! YEAAAAHHH!!! Go Lions! Give everyone a knighthood. Halfpenny for King. Gatland for Pope.’ Now that I’ve had a chance to calm down, my first instinct is still to write 1,000 words with precisely that sentiment, but I’m going to rein myself in, and try and be a little more objective.
It was an outstanding performance from the tourists. They were defensively superb, the forwards carried the ball strongly, the backs exercised their moves when it mattered and, most importantly, they absolutely monstered the Wallabies in the scrum, so much so that you started to almost feel sorry for the Australian pack, and a British sport-lover does not dole out sympathy to an Australian sportsperson willy-nilly.
As a former back, I genuinely have no idea what goes on at scrum-time (along with the rest of the human race). I am au fait with the term ‘hinging’, I can bollocks on about slipping your bind with the best of them, and I understand what an early engagement is, but generally I look at the scrum with a certain amount of bemusement, and then cheer/groan when the inevitable sanction occurs (because, let’s be honest, the ball hardly ever comes out). However, even I could tell that the Lions scrum was doing something special. Those in the know were praising the referee Romain Poite for finally refereeing the scrum properly, and clearly the extra power of Alex Corbisiero and Richard Hibbard made a difference.
I was worried that the pack selection had too much emphasis on ball-carrying ability and not enough on craft at the breakdown, but as it transpired the breakdown was not contested as hotly as in the second Test, and, when it was, Poite importantly allowed a proper contest. Therefore the three loose forwards could work as unit, as evidenced by the first penalty conceded by the Wallabies. Dan Lydiate felled Joe Tomane, with Sean O’Brien in close attendance, meaning the Irishman could get his hands on the ball before any other Aussie could get near enough to form a ruck. However, the Lions were smart, and only committed to the breakdown when there was a clear chance of winning the ball, or if they were defending near their own line, when they were excellent at slowing the ball down, probably illegally. Jonathan Sexton was possibly lucky to avoid a yellow card in the second half, when he held on to the tackled player a couple of metres from his own tryline.
And then we come to ball-carrying. The difference between the second and third Tests was startling. Jamie Heaslip is a fine player, quick, with an outstanding offload, and an eye for space, but a shirt-up-jumper ball-carrier he is not. Given the style of play Gatland prefers, it was a surprise that Toby Faletau had to wait until the third Test to get a start, but he made a huge difference, always making yards, catching restart ball, and coming up with a crucial, possibly even game-changing turnover in his own 22, a couple of minutes before Sexton’s try. Sean O’Brien, the object of an unexpectedly large amount of man-love from the commentators on Australian TV, was also prominent ball-carrying-wise, although not as much as in previous games – here his main contribution was breakdown work, and putting in an astonishing number of tackles, getting into double figures before the end of the first half. Finally, Richard Hibbard improved even on Tom Youngs’ work in the loose, notably getting up unharmed from two almighty head clashes, and then collapsing into a state of catatonia on being replaced.
As far as the backs were concerned, their efforts in the first hour or so were primarily defensive. Jamie Roberts is Wales’ defence leader, and obviously had no trouble slotting into the system alongside his usual partner Jonathan Davies, while George North impressed, giving Israel Folau an early greeting, and then pulling off a highly impressive catch of a high ball in his own 22 under pressure from two Wallabies. However, when an attacking opportunity arose, they displayed the incisiveness of a warm sharp metal object meeting a lump of dairy product, in particular for the second try, where Tommy Bowe’s decoy run created just enough hesitation in the Australian defence, giving Jonathan Davies just enough room to slip round the outside. For the fourth try, the angle of Jamie Roberts’ run, and the timing of Conor Murray’s pass were so beautiful and so perfect, that I fully expect to see an exhibition based around them displayed at the Royal Academy within the next 12 months.
Then we have Leigh Halfpenny. Wonderful, wonderful Halfpenny. The man to whom I am intending to marry my as yet unborn daughter, whether she wants to or not (although let’s face it, she probably will – girls go gooey at his curly locks and soulful eyes, in the way that blokes go misty-eyed at his flawless kicking technique and low centre of gravity). He quite simply gets everything right. The opposition fly-half blooters a kick downfield – don’t worry Halfpenny’s in the perfect position to field it, and barely has to move to catch it, before cracking a dead-eyed reply into touch in the opposition 22. Oh no, the most dangerous runner in the team has gathered his own chip and chase and is haring into our 22 – don’t worry, Halfpenny has grabbed him round his knees and has him down on the floor before he even has a chance to think about an offload. What’s this, the opposing scrum-half has booted a mediocre kick towards the left hand side of the pitch around the halfway line? Can’t see us making too much out of this opportunity though. Hang on, Halfpenny’s predicted exactly where the kick will go, has caught it and set off on a mazy run, stepping outside then inside before drawing the full-back and sending our giant left-winger over in the corner. He is an utterly brilliant player in every facet of the game.
There is much else to mention in conjunction with the game – the way Adam Jones never ever takes a backward step in the scrum; the fact Jonathan Sexton is always shouting angrily at someone; Jesse Mogg’s tracer-like left boot; Geoff Parling’s epoch-making ankle tap on the aforementioned Mogg; Geoff Parling’s beard, which makes him look as though he should be telling whimsical yet subtly hilarious stories at the Edinburgh Fringe; Kurtley Beale’s line-breaking ability; Warren Gatland’s slight smile as the Lions win another penalty at the scrum; the way that even joy at a Lions victory cannot hide the fact that Stuart Barnes is an obnoxious tosser . However, that’s all for another day. Instead let’s savour the win, and put £50 in an envelope entitled ‘New Zealand 2017 fund.’