Lions 2013: Triumph enhances Lions' and Gatland's reputations
What a way to finish. Did anyone really expect that?
A victory, perhaps, although there were plenty who thought the Lions' best chance had already passed in Melbourne.
But a record points tally? Gloriously compiled with three quick-fire tries in a dizzying dozen second-half minutes?
Even Alun Wyn Jones, who played a central role in the denouement to a dramatic series, could not quite take in the 41-16 win that sealed a 2-1 series victory, 45 minutes after the final whistle had sounded.
Best Lions points tallies in Tests
- 41 - v Australia, 2013
- 31 - v Australia, 1966
- 29 - v Australia, 2001
- 28 - v South Africa, 1974 & 2009
"Ask me on Tuesday or Wednesday what it was like and I may be able to describe it," said the lock, an inspired choice as captain for the tourists' finest hour since the 1997 series was clinched in Durban. "At the minute I am outside the moment."
A short while earlier, Jones and fellow Welshman Jamie Roberts were drinking it in, lying exultant on their backs amid the red-and-white tinsel tape blanketing the old Olympic Stadium pitch.
While the legions of Lions supporters joined in raucously as Tom Jones's Delilah boomed around the arena, the players' expressions suggested mild disbelief at what they had just accomplished.
So commanding was their lead, so demoralised were the Wallabies, that Warren Gatland and his fellow coaches felt able to leave their box and join the rest of the staff on the touchline for the final five minutes.
"Test match rugby is agony or ecstasy, there's nothing in between," said the New Zealander, who has had his fair share of both. "When you get the ecstasy, you've got to enjoy that moment, not just myself but everyone involved. Emotionally they have put so much into it."
Perhaps this week more than any other.
Gatland said he took no pleasure in seeing his decision to make six changes, and deprive Brian O'Driscoll of the send-off an outstanding Lions servant deserved, fully vindicated.
The flak flying his way in recent days, not just over O'Driscoll, but also the suggestion he was favouring his own Wales players by picking 10 of them, has clearly stung.
Gatland would have been within his rights to snipe back at the former players and media commentators who questioned whether his actions had undermined the whole Lions ethos.
As it is, he has ensured the brand will continue to thrive and thrill for years to come, and enhanced his own reputation in the process.
The next mission to New Zealand in 2017 may be the most hazardous of the lot, but at least those charged with tackling it will head south without the millstone of a 20-year winless streak weighing them down.
In truth the omission of O'Driscoll, and his leadership, was never likely to be the critical factor in this deciding Test, and so it proved.
The scrum, an old weakness the Wallabies thought they had cast aside, returned to haunt them in spectacular fashion.
Given a French referee, Romain Poite, renowned for rewarding the dominant scrum, there was always a suspicion that with prop Alex Corbisiero back at loose-head, and Richard Hibbard adding ballast at hooker alongside Adam Jones, the Wallabies might struggle to contain the Lions eight.
The tourists were awarded two free-kicks and three penalties from the first six scrums. The first free-kick led to Corbisiero's early converted try, and Leigh Halfpenny dispatched the three penalties.
Corbisiero, who Gatland nominated as his man of the match for his "sensational" display around the field as well as his contribution at the scrum, gave Australia tight-head Ben Alexander such a torrid time that when the Wallaby was sent to the sin-bin for collapsing the scrum again on 25 minutes, his side decided they were better off without him, leaving Sekope Kepu on in his place.
The hosts had said they intended to "take the Lions outside their comfort zone". But by failing to control the opening kick-off, which they allowed to bounce before Will Genia knocked it on, they actually helped their opponents gain belated value from an obvious strength and take control.
Stand-in skipper Jones led from the front, carrying more ball than any other player. Everything he did had an intensity and passion that inspired those around him.
“I just hope the next 48 hours doesn't get out of hand; that is my big concern, as we don't fly out until Tuesday!”
Though Halfpenny was voted man of the series, the Ospreys lock was surely the outstanding Lions forward, his unflinching commitment encapsulated in an early hit on Australian counterpart James Horwill that set the tone.
Sean O'Brien made 11 tackles in the first half alone, and 13 out of 15 in all. Number eight Toby Faletau put in a trademark tireless shift, and won a vital turnover near the Lions line. George North oozed menace.
The backs - with the fit-again Roberts making some headway - were solid rather than spectacular for the first 50-odd minutes, before exploding into life.
Jonathan Davies justified his selection with a pivotal role in Jonny Sexton's try that effectively took the game away from Australia, while Halfpenny's running skills further illuminated the tourists' performance.
The 24-year-old had already punished the hosts with his deadly right boot, his only blemish from the tee in nine attempts from out on the left touchline with the game effectively sewn up after North's try made it 34-16.
"I think he has established himself as a pretty iconic figure in the game now," Jones said of Halfpenny. "He has been a talisman throughout the tour and the plaudits he gets are more than deserved."
Halfpenny landed 39 of his 44 kicks on this trip, including 17 from 21 amid the extra pressure of the Test series. Not least of the many satisfying aspects of this success is that history will not recall his missed effort from halfway with the last kick of the second Test as a defining moment of the series.
While Australia did not appear to have much faith in their kicker, Christian Leali'ifano, landing anything from more than 30 metres as they opted to kick five first-half penalties to touch rather than at goal, Halfpenny's technique is so well honed even the ones he misses are by minuscule margins.
Nor is he alone in enhancing his reputation. Gatland was effusive in his praise for the impact of scrum-half Conor Murray, hooker Tom Youngs and the rest of the bench in a stirring collective effort.
"These guys have done themselves and that jersey proud," Gatland added. "They deserve a huge amount of credit for that performance and what they have achieved, and not just the 23 players but the whole squad, the management, the medical and support staff. I think they have been exceptional on and off the field.
"I just hope the next 48 hours doesn't get out of hand; that is my big concern, as we don't fly out until Tuesday! But all the people involved, and the players in particular, have to enjoy the moment."
Absolutely. Lions series wins do not come around too often. The odds are always stacked against them.
If the class of 2013 bring the same passion and intensity they showed on the field to the celebrations, and there is no reason to doubt they will, the party will go on for a while yet.
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