Saturday 18 November 2017

Brendan Fanning: A remarkable finish to an unremarkable series

Warren Gatland shakes hands with Robbie Deans
Warren Gatland shakes hands with Robbie Deans
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

A tale of two coaches: one was on the cusp of a victory that at least would have made it hard for his employers to sack him; the other was sweating that his raft of changes would sink a ship that was already taking on water.

Naturally enough, it wasn't too long after the final whistle in Sydney yesterday that Kiwi Robbie Deans was asked about his chances of staying as Australia coach.

"You don't presume anything in this industry," he said. "Those decisions are made by others."

We suspect the decision has just been all but confirmed, and Ewan McKenzie will be brought in sooner rather than later. Meantime in the other corner, Deans's fellow Kiwi Warren Gatland, who has been widely vilified in Ireland since his decision to omit Brian O'Driscoll, has become the first coach since Ian McGeechan in 1997 to chart a successful course for the Lions in the southern hemisphere.

It was a remarkable finish to an unremarkable series. It got under way in the barely tolerable humidity of Hong Kong, a financial exercise that hopefully won't be repeated en route to New Zealand in four years' time. It stuttered in Canberra, where the tourists lost their first game, to the Brumbies. Then it ground to a halt in Melbourne last weekend when for the second week running the Wallabies finished the game far stronger, giving us a theme for this week that they would shift into a higher gear to finish the job.

Complementing that was the spin up to Noosa by the Lions squad. It would be fair to say that the first two days were not about purifying their systems. Then they put together back-to-back sessions that made them look like everything was falling apart. Whereupon they fetch up in Sydney, find a nice groove in their captain's run, and promptly go out and dominate the Wallabies to an extraordinary extent. Four years ago they won the third Test when it didn't matter; here they delivered when it mattered most.

It was good for business, even if Deans won't see it that way. Even allowing for the fact that the fans are on a jolly, there are only so many times the Lions can trundle off every four years only to come home empty-handed. This not only keeps the show open, but ensures it will be a hit at the box office.

If Hong Kong was its low point, then Sydney was the polar opposite. True, it took a long time for the Lions backs to look like they could make some capital from the dominance of their forwards, but when it started the home team collapsed.

Among the Irish contingent there were both winners and losers. If O'Driscoll was the most crestfallen then Rob Kearney will get the award for most frustrated, having come out injured and lost irretrievable ground to the man of the series, Leigh Halfpenny. In between there was Jamie Heaslip, who was dumped for the last Test and saw his replacement, Toby Faletau, produce a phenomenal performance.

Seán O'Brien came last to the Test party and left with a smile on his face. Tommy Bowe you thought would have been invalided out of the gig, as were Paul O'Connell and Cian Healy, but survived to finish on a high. You wouldn't say the same of Rory Best or Simon Zebo, while Tom Court got the jersey mostly because he was in the neighbourhood.

Centre-stage at the end were Jonny Sexton and Conor Murray. The outhalf thought he was going to see far more quality ball than he did over the three Tests, but had the thrilling feeling of scoring the try that decided the game. It was hard to understand exactly why he was taken off.

And then there was Murray, the No 3 scrumhalf coming out – and that was confirmed in the defeat by the Brumbies – only to finish up making a very useful contribution to the cause. Is he a much better player for the experience?

"Yes, definitely – 100 per cent. Self-belief is always really important. You don't know how to measure it but once you come into a squad like this and play with players you admire – world-class players – you just measure yourself against them on this tour and you take a lot of confidence from it – definitely. I'm feeling on top of the world right now."

His relationship with Rob Howley was one that developed as the tour went on, and he got his fair share of praise from the backs coach.

"I think you get selected on the basis of your own performances," Murray said. "Once you get here you can't reinvent yourself. You've got to trust your own game and believe in yourself. He really made me believe that, just be your own person, be your own player.

"Don't be afraid of playing, don't go into your shell, don't be shy, just go and play your own game and back yourself. You've seen the players who were left out of this squad, and once you're picked in it, it gives you a boost and he just really told me to go out and play my own game.

"He gave me confidence that he believed in me. Being brought on in the last two games around 50 minutes was a real confidence-booster for me. You go on and you're worried but you try to play your own game and it's a good feeling when it comes off."

Gatland would identify with that. So would all of the Lions who got to take part in this series-saving night.

Irish Independent

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