Sport Rugby

Monday 25 September 2017

Full frontal assault seals Lions victory

Halfpenny the hero as tourists take series

Jonny Sexton begins his celebration after touching down for the crucial Lions’ try against Australia in Sydney yesterday.
Jonny Sexton begins his celebration after touching down for the crucial Lions’ try against Australia in Sydney yesterday.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

BY the time the stadium announcer at ANZ told us that the attendance of 83,702 was a record for this reshaped arena, that figure had already been depleted by departing Australians. They started streaming out when man of the match – man of the series – Leigh Halfpenny stepped outside Will Genia to score the try that did for the home team, with 16 minutes left. And those departing quickened their step a notch when Jamie Roberts skated over after a lovely feed by replacement Conor Murray. Remarkable stuff.

In fairness, Homebush is a painfully long trek from the city centre so you could understand them wanting to make a start on the journey. They came, like most of us, expecting a home win, not least because the tired Lions had prepared poorly for this Test and the momentum was all with the Wallabies.

Yet the tourists came out and did what they said they would do: dominate the Australians physically. Especially, they said, they would be top dog at the scrum. This is no mean feat in rugby, for that half of the set-piece is such a mess and so hard to referee accurately that it's dodgy to expect too much from it.

From the first four engagements, they got a penalty and two free-kicks, and by the time referee Romain Poite sin-binned Aussie tighthead Ben Alexander after another one went down, the home team were dreading that phase. So the Lions used their penalties here for Halfpenny to get the scoreboard ticking over, while the home team – in the first half anyway – were far more ambitious, knocking no less that five penalties towards the corner in that first period. That would change.

Certainly, Australia were trying to play more rugby. At times you wondered would the tourists ever put together something behind the scrum that would ask awkward questions of their hosts. The policy was to batter close in, and then to do it again. It helped that they were doing it having had a scarcely credible start: Jonny Sexton's drop-kick to get the match under way was spilled by Will Genia to give the Lions a foothold, which they used to hammer Alex Corbisiero over from close range; and then Halfpenny hit a brilliant penalty kick from halfway to give them a 10-point lead with only eight minutes gone. Alun-Wyn Jones had asked Halfpenny before the game what was the limit of his range. "Halfway," was the reply. Fair enough.

All week, the Australians had spoken of getting a good start and then running through the phases and ramping up the pressure on the tired tourists. This opening was far from the script. The physicality of the Lions belied their condition: Jones, given the captaincy in controversial circumstances, was immense, as were backrowers Sean O'Brien and Toby Faletau.

It actually helped that Faletau was blood-binned in the second half because it gave him a few minutes to catch his breath. Critical to it all was the momentum derived from the bench. Perhaps the greatest impact came from Tom Youngs, who got the vehicle moving forward again in the second half after it had stalled.

"The plan was always to use all the bench," Warren Gatland said afterwards. "They came on and kept the momentum going and that was particularly important."

The sweaty period for the Lions started late in the second quarter. Sexton's drop goal miss on 31 minutes was a big moment for it would have put the Lions 22-3 clear. Coming as it did, on the back of their longest sequence of possession in the whole tour, it would have fitted the Wallabies for a cask if not quite bolted down the lid.

In the circumstances, seven points was a good result for them and came after the hooter had gone for the end of the first half. Off the Wallabies' best scrum of the period, James O'Connor used Joe Tomane to fix the defence and then managed to step both Sexton and O'Brien – who was obstructed – and then hold off another defender for a muscular try. Christian Leali'ifano's conversion left them trailing 19-10, but at least they were back in the game.

That little swing put a premium on the first score of the second half. Could the Lions restart the traffic down the grunt road or would the home side get back into the groove that saw them finish the Melbourne Test so strongly? For the latter, they would need a huge shift at the scrum. Right on cue, Leali'ifano tapped over two penalties in the first six minutes of the second half to make it a three-point game.

"We'd spoken at half-time about players being prepared to go to a place not many players go to in terms of physical effort and pushing their bodies to the limit," Gatland said.

Well, they went there. The first step was yet another scrum penalty. The Lions actually conceded 11 penalties to Australia's nine, but the home team's horrendous stat was in getting ball from just three of their nine scrums. Halfpenny knocked that kick over on 51 minutes and then on came Murray to put some pace on the game.

Four minutes later, Sexton got over for the Lions' second try after they had dragged Australia all the way to the touch line and then nailed them on the opposite wing with Halfpenny giving him the scoring pass. It seemed odd that the outhalf should be one of those replaced, but by then George North had pushed the Lions out to 34-16 after Halfpenny had left Genia for dead.

It was celebration stuff from then on, and Jamie Roberts closed the show after a lovely combination with Murray. To say no one saw this coming would be an understatement. Already the plans are being put in place for New Zealand in four years' time.

Australia: K Beale; I Folau (J Mogg 26), A Ashley-Cooper, C Leali'ifano, J Tomane; J O'Connor, W Genia (N Phipps 70); B Robinson (J Slipper 67), S Moore (S Fainga'a 55-73), B Alexander (yc 25-35; S Kepu), K Douglas (R Simmons 64), J Horwill (capt), B Mowen, W Palu (B McCalman 60), G Smith (M Hooper 67).

Lions: L Halfpenny; T Bowe, J Davies, J Roberts (M Tuilagi 70), G North; J Sexton (O Farrell 64), M Phillips (C Murray 52); A Corbisiero (M Vunipola 68), R Hibbard (T Youngs 48), A Jones (D Cole 55), AW Jones, G Parling (R Gray 68), D Lydiate, T Faletau, S O'Brien (J Tipuric 60).

Referee: R Poite (France).

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport