Thursday 22 March 2018

Neil Francis: Aussies were a pushover in the end as Gatland's boldselections help to generate right kind of momentum

Yes, Australia were inept but the Lions just wanted it more, says Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The Lions coach Warren Gatland is neither a complex nor a sophisticated man and as an adopted Kiwi is blessed only with a smidgeon of superficial charm. He is human though and sometimes it is impossible not to warm to him.

He does lack that Zen-like quality that his predecessor Ian McGeechan possesses and in no way could you consider him the Obi Wan Kenobi of Lions rugby but he pulled off an improbable victory in a Test series of riotous incongruity. It crystallises the sentiment that he is no longer a lucky coach and that his methods, no matter how rudimentary the purists consider them to be, work.

I went to watch the New York Yankees play years ago in the Bronx and emblazoned on the wall in the bleachers where I was going to buy a few hot dogs were the words of another pudgy and unlikely hero Babe Ruth.

The Bronx Bomber's words will echo in eternity but were very pertinent in the lead up to yesterday's winner-takes-all Test. "Don't let the fear of striking out hold you back." The whole tour could have unravelled and Gatland's career could have lain in ashes as he made a number of selection calls which were seminal and effectively decided the series. He decided to dispense with the exemplar personality of Brian O'Driscoll, a huge call. We will never know what effect, positive or negative, O'Driscoll would have made.

In hindsight, Declan Kidney could have played in the No 13 jersey and the Lions still would have won. Effectively what Gatland did was hijack the momentum back for the Lions and this was probably the most important catalyst in the run-up. The delineation between our dreams of O'Driscoll captaining the Lions in a deciding test and Gatland's pragmatic approach to winning it was key.

Muhammad Ali once said "the fight is won or lost far away from witnesses, behind lines in the gym and out there on the road long before I dance under those lights." Gatland's decision to infuse new players into the side jump-started his team's flagging morale.

I have often been told that real pressure is the wife, the girlfriend and the mortgage – all a month late. But the pressure on Gatland last week must have been phenomenal. The change in personnel fortified the team and gave them a sense of belief which is in contrast to how Australia performed.

I have never seen an Australian side so lacking in ideas. You sensed from the first kick-off, which was dropped by Australia's best player Will Genia, that all was not well in the Aussie camp. It was an innocuous enough kick and should have been easily fielded and the Australians never recovered from the pressure that they got in the first couple of minutes as Alex Corbisiero got over.

Where were the Australians? What made them think that they only had to turn up? Maybe they had listened too intently to David Campese who had blasted that Gatland had handed the Test series to Australia by his selection.

This was a vital win for the Lions franchise. If they had lost it would have meant that they would have gone to South Africa in 2021 without a series win of any kind since 1997. There is no question that the Lions will lose in four years' time in New Zealand. This has been a far from vintage series; it could be dubbed the 'tutti frutti' series such was the lack of quality. I watched the Crusaders play the Chiefs in the Super 15 the day before. Both sides would beat the Lions 3-0 in a three-match series. The New Zealanders are playing in a parallel universe in terms of how they play the game. If you were being picky, and I am, you would have to say that this final game, despite four good tries being scored, is a bastardisation of the core principles of the game.

It is true that the Australians can't scrummage but to win the series on the basis of being able to march your opponents back five metres in the middle of the park and then kick penalties off the back of that isn't the type of rugby union that I want to see being practised at the highest level.

I am not sure how or when the law changed that when you get pushed backwards it is a full penalty and maybe that needs to change. Either way, the Lions won't be able to use that advantage against any New Zealand side and were lucky that Ben and Ben the flower pot men had as much power and impetus at scrum time as Kylie Minogue. Neither do their whole pack scrummage as eight.

Their back row are up like a jack in the box as soon as the heave comes on rather than packing tight with their front five. When you get seven penalties at scrum time that is well on the way to being an appreciable difference – it will only happen against Australia and fair play to the Lions for pushing home their advantage.

It's win-win for the Aussies as the tour has generated significant interest even in the middle of a state of origin series. Robbie Deans will now be sacked and will be replaced by either Ewan McKenzie or Jake White. The error of his ways came into sharp focus in the 62nd minute when Australia were 16-29 down but were by no means out of the contest and it still was a contest at this stage. Deans switched Kurtley Beale from fullback to outhalf and brought O'Connor into his back three. O'Connor had managed to wriggle his way over the Lions try line in injury time in the first half through dint of pure force and not a little talent. His ability to manage the game and put Australia in a position of advantage was just awful and, without wishing to decry Leigh Halfpenny's sustained excellence, O'Connor made him look like a superstar with his myopic kicking Halfpenny collected every one of O'Connor's kicks, most of them untroubled and on the full. Every time O'Connor kicked he put Australia under pressure. Because they were behind they were forced to chase and even when they did try to play territory, it backfired on them.

The Aussies did manage to fight their way back to 16-9 as they

began to control the ball and their passes began to stick but the Lions had a better sense of themselves and their scrum bailed them out and there were some vivid examples of excellence from Sexton and Halfpenny as they conjured up try-scoring opportunities.

I have never seen so many Australians fall off tackles so easily

and be dominated in the collisions to such an extent. It seems to me that they were beaten before the match even kicked off – beaten by a team that wanted it more.

The moment of the match came in the 55th minute as Australia were on the up. They controlled the pace of the game and were going through the gears into the Lions' 22. Falatau, with a pretty serious cut over his eye, managed to ignore this temporary blight and picked up a wondrous turnover at the breakdown as the Aussies went through some sexy phase work.

It stopped their momentum dead and shortly afterwards Halfpenny took a delicious line and a skilful pass inside to the trailing Sexton for the try that would make the series safe.

Gatland got his platform at tight. He probably had the right mix in the back row and Sexton showed what a mature and accomplished player he is.

Seán O'Brien played a major part in this win leading the side with 15 tackles. Conor Murray too had an astonishing 20 minutes and showed composure and ice-cold nous to close out the game. Tommy Bowe too had some special moments.

The real heroes are the medical team who were only short the fishes and the loaves. As for Gatland in the post match, it wasn't exactly a 1,000 megawatt smile but his guts and balls have been rewarded. Congratulations to all.

Irish Independent

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