Thursday 14 December 2017

Frankie Sheehan: Powerful Lions would have still triumphed with O'Driscoll in side

Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with Jonathan Sexton
Brian O'Driscoll celebrates with Jonathan Sexton

Frankie Sheehan

There is an old saying in rugby that states, 'forwards decide who wins matches, backs decide by how much', and it was never truer in the third Test.

As I expected, Warren Gatland picked a pack to grind Australia down in the scrum, and boy did they do that. Australia got off to the worst possible start, straight from the kick-off when they didn't secure possession. That first scrum was just what the Lions wanted, it was very solid.

And the Alex Corbisiero try came on the back of that intense pressure. It really set the tone for the whole day.

Apart from a spell either side of half-time, the Lions utterly dominated their opponents. They scrummaged them into submission and drove them backwards with monstrous hits. In fact, all the selections calls that Gatland made worked out extremely well.

Richard Hibbard was immense, his scrummaging was fantastic and was the key difference for me. He should have got man of the match and his hit on George Smith with Alun-Wyn Jones really set the tone.

Toby Faletau also did well; Sean O'Brien was superb, he had a brilliant turnover on six minutes to earn an extra three points and Jamie Roberts also excelled.

WRONG

I must say, in defence of the Aussies, while there was no doubt as to who was dominating the scrum, I felt that Ben Alexander's sin-binning in the first half was the wrong call. I would have re-set the scrum. It looked more like a slip.

But I also felt the Australians let themselves down tactically at times. Like last week, they went for the jugular and started to kick for the corners in search of tries. Seeing as it was still the first half, I felt they should have had a pot at goal to chip away at the Lions' lead. Some of their decision-making wasn't the greatest. It worked for them last week but on this occasion it proved their downfall.

Overall, they made too many mistakes. They didn't work well when receiving restarts. The first one was knocked on, resulting in a try and another poor restart soon followed. They were masters of their downfall with their errors.

But they also brought so much to the Test series. At the start, like many people, I thought the Lions would win 3-0 but I was mightily impressed by the determination of the Australians; their willingness to fight until the end was admirable.

To claw their way back after a pummelling in the first half was brilliant. Given everything we saw in the opening 30 minutes, for them to get that try just before the break to go in 19-10, and then to pull it back to three points, was outstanding. The way they played, their continuity, their ball-handling, their lines of running, the way they take the ball flat on the line, was just excellent rugby and a pleasure to watch.

But crucially the damage had been done by the Lions scrum, and I don't think the scoreline was a fair reflection of the game at the end.

You could see in the final quarter, the Lions really turned the screw. Gatland stood over his convictions and made changes in the third quarter. At the time I questioned it: I thought bringing off Hibbard and Adam Jones was a mistake. But it transpired that the damage had been done at that stage. The Australians were worn down.

In the build-up to the third Test, the Lions coach came in for huge flak for dropping Brian O'Driscoll. It was a shame not to see him out there with a Lions jersey on and I still think it would have been the right decision to play him. The Lions would have won if he was playing or not.

But for Gatland, I think it didn't matter what centre combination he went with. I predicted the game would be decided at the scrum and the midfield partnership didn't matter. I'm happy that I was right there, but disappointed I didn't get to see O'Driscoll star.

To crown a great weekend, the Lions Legends won our match 29-19 against the Classic Wallabies to clinch the series 2-0. There were some big names playing including David Campese, but we won out, with John O'Neill scoring a fabulous winning try. It was good to see a Munster man get the decisive score for us.

Overall, it really has been a few weeks to remember. Sydney was absolutely hopping at the weekend. There were red jerseys everywhere; there was banter; there was fun, and there was plenty of craic. All the Aussie supporters were very gracious in defeat, as were the Lions supporters in victory. Bring on New Zealand in 2017!

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