Thursday 22 March 2018

Irish greats in shade of Gatland's glory

Australia 16 Lions 41

Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe celebrate in Sydney
Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe celebrate in Sydney
Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll celebrate with their Lions team-mates after winning the Test series
Conor George

Conor George

A NIGHT of extravagant entertainment marked one of the most momentous achievements in Lions history – a first series win since 1997 and a first win against Australia since 1989.

The joy and spirit of celebration that followed the Lions' memorable win was, however, tinged inevitably with a green shadow of regret.

Sure, there was every reason to feel proud and excited at the contributions of Jonathan Sexton, Sean O'Brien, Tommy Bowe and Conor Murray to the stunning victory in Sydney, but it was impossible not to experience a sense of loss that stemmed from the absence of a number of Irish players.

Brian O'Driscoll, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Simon Zebo, Rory Best and Tom Court all wore the red Lions shirt on this tour and shared in the collective sense of achievement.

O'Driscoll, O'Connell and Heaslip enjoyed the added fulfilment of having played in at least one of the Tests. Nothing, however, matches being part of the winning team in the decisive match.

Warren Gatland drew the ire of the Irish nation when he decided to go into the series-deciding match without the incomparable O'Driscoll. Injuries had taken O'Connell and Healy out of contention but the decision to omit O'Driscoll from the squad – never mind from the team – earned Gatland the title of 'Public Enemy No 1' from Ireland's rugby fans.

It didn't help that the excellent Jamie Heaslip was also excluded from the match-day 23.

The result, and especially the spectacular, extravagant performance that provided such a memorable climax to the series, doesn't necessarily make his decision to go to battle without O'Driscoll the right one.

Yet the coach must be afforded due credit for the achievement and for having the courage of his convictions.

This Lions series was about winning. That is what the coach was charged with achieving and he delivered. No Lions coach is ever going to be able to keep every player and all four nations happy, but Gatland deserves the plaudits for the triumph.

Sixteen years is an eternity between series successes and Gatland helped bridge that gap by following his own convictions.

"The series in 2009 was about restoring pride in the jersey and in the Lions," said Gatland. "This tour was about something else. Our whole primary objective was about coming here and winning and I'm pleased we've done that." What was truly astonishing about Saturday's performance was that the Lions finally played some rugby.

It must be acknowledged just how poor Australia were – but the Lions were superb at times.

They dominated the scrum and it surely wasn't a coincidence that their best scrummaging performance came when the game was refereed by an official who plies his trade in the northern hemisphere.

Romain Poite is not everyone's favourite referee but on this occasion he allowed the Lions to scrummage in the manner in which they operate in the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup and a startling mismatch at the set-piece was exposed.

They blew Australia away and the flow of points that stemmed from the referee's decisions quickly assumed the proportions of a flood.

Australia looked on with puzzlement when, after a previous warning, they had prop forward Ben Alexander yellow-carded in the 25th minute for his third infringement at the scrum. It was a seminal moment in the game.

The biggest testament to the Lions and their performance was in the way they reacted to the Australians coming to within three points of them five minutes after the restart.

So fragile were the Lions in terms of leaders the fear was they would implode. Yet they exploded into life with three tries in 12 minutes to obliterate the Australians.

The manner of the Lions victory has led, inevitably, to the fanciful suggestion they can now look to the 2017 tour of New Zealand with confidence and with a real belief they can legitimately target the most coveted scalp of all.

"If we get things right in terms of the preparation and stuff I think the Lions can certainly look at a series win in New Zealand," said Gatland.

"I spoke before the game that for some players it's going to be the last time they wear the jersey. I said to a lot of the players this afternoon, if you look at how young this squad is, a lot of them could be around in four years' time.

"If they're playing well enough and you've got four more years of experience on some young heads, some young shoulders, and they're in their late 20s, that potentially makes the Lions squad in four years' time incredibly strong. That's something to be excited about."

It is, perhaps, stretching it somewhat to suggest that one truly creditable performance out of three Tests will give rise to such ambitions but that was the mood within the Lions camp.

"I always believe that anything is possible and that I will always win," said tour captain Sam Warburton. "Absolute rubbish is my response to the suggestion the Lions can't beat New Zealand in the next Test series."

If the Lions are to have any hope of building on this success there will need to be changes to how they prepare, Gatland emphasised.

These changes will need to include rescheduling the finals of the Pro12 and English Premiership as well as those of the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cup.

"Having the Premiership and Rabo finals on 24 hours before we flew to Hong Kong was not conducive to optimum preparation," said Gatland.

"It is important that the Lions and home unions get together in terms of adequate preparation time.

"The season needs to be adjusted a little so that we can spend a couple of weeks together in the UK and Ireland in terms of preparing properly. That means there has to be a negotiation with the southern hemisphere to push things back in terms of the number of lead-up games.

"To be successful you want to have the best possible opportunity," he added.

There is no denying the success of this tour to Australia. At times some of the rugby wasn't of a great quality and the Lions were lucky to be still in the contest after the first two Tests.

Engaging in a hypothetical exercise is as fruitful as enquiring as to how many grains of sand there are on the beach – there is no point and no answer.

The series, the way the Lions team played and the whole tour had its flaws. For now though, it's enough to reflect on a first series win in 16 years and that some of Ireland's true greats are finally Lions series winners.

Australia – K Beale, I Folau (J Mogg 27), A A Cooper, C Leali'ifano, J Tomane, J O'Connor, W Genia (N Phipps 70), B Robinson (J Slipper 66), S Moore (S Fainga'a 73), B Alexander (K Skepoe 27) K Douglas (R Simmons 62), J Horwill, B Mowen, G Smith (M Hooper 67), W Palu (B McCalman 60).

Lions – L Halfpenny, T Bowe, J Davies, J Roberts (M Tuilagi 69), G North, J Sexton (O Farrell 63), M Phillips (C Murray 51), A Corbisiero (M Vunipola 68), R Hibbard (T Youngs 47), A Jones (D Cole 55), G Parling (R Gray 68), A W Jones, D Lydiate, S O'Brien (J Tipuric 59), T Faletau.

REF – R Poite (FFR)

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