Roaring Lions prey on Wallabies

Size does matter. The British and Irish Lions repelled a spirited fightback from the Wallabies either side of half-time to power away to victory. The Lions team was selected for power rather than pace, brute force as opposed to guile. Total dominance at the scrum, the first four set-pieces resulting in a Lions free kick or penalty, gave them an early stranglehold on the game. When Australia were threatening to wrestle control of the game their scrum again buckled under the Lions’ pressure, giving the visitors an easy three points. The Lions did not look back, their direct running and aggression in the close exchanges sapping the Wallabies’ energy. Enjoying space to run for the first time since the early exchanges of test one in Brisbane, the Lions’ backs were rampant. Man of the series Leigh Halfpenny showed there is so much more to his game than goal-kicking, twice opening up the Wallabies on their right flank to create tries for Jonny Sexton and then George North. Giant centre Jamie Roberts put the icing on the cake, bursting through a gap cleverly created by replacement halfback Conor Murray to cruise across the line.

 

I don’t know if Jeff Kennett made disparaging comments about the Lions’ mental drive before the game, but the rugby gods conspired against Australia from the opening whistle. Will Genia has been the Wallabies’ outstanding player throughout the series, but when he inexplicably dropped the kick-off the Lions capitalised immediately. The first scrum infringement of the evening by the Wallabies saw a quick tap from the Lions and their forwards bludgeoned their way towards the line, with prop Alex Corbisiero burrowing his way over it. Wallabies coach Robbie Deans put much faith in veteran George Smith controlling breakdown and slowing down the Lions – he was knocked out cold in a head clash after only a few minutes. Smith did return to the field after a while but thereafter failed to influence the game in the way his coach would have hoped. And soon after the biggest slice of bad luck of all, at least as far as the crowd were concerned. First test hero and potential Wallaby match-winner Israel Folau was forced from the field with a hamstring injury before the half hour point of the game was reached.

 

If those circumstances were brought about by bad fortune, Australia’s biggest problems were caused by their opponents. They had overcome serious doubts about their ability to hold the Lions scrummage in the first two tests, but this crucial area of the game was their downfall tonight. Leigh Halfpenny was able to keep the scoreboard ticking over through the first half as a result of frequent penalties awarded against the Wallabies at the scrum. Ben Alexander spent ten minutes in the sin bin late in the first half as the referee lost patience with the repeated offences. And just when they had worked their way back into the game, the Wallabies failed to retain their momentum. James O’Connor’s solo try on the stroke of half-time and two early second half penalties saw them close to within three points, but they were unable to hold their more powerful opponents at bay. Their backs tackled manfully all night but the Lions’ dominance of the forward exchanges provided them with an impetus which the Wallabies could not ultimately repel.

 

The final scoreline does not reflect the closeness of the overall series. Either side could have gone into this game with an unassailable two-nil lead if last minute kicks in Brisbane or Melbourne had been successful. It does, however, confirm the truism that rugby is a test of strength and technique; that you have to earn the right to throw the ball around the backs by matching your opponents up front. Australia’s parity in the scrum and at the breakdown in the two previous games enabled them to be competitive. Brisbane was a free-flowing belter of a game. Melbourne was a fingernail-mauling cliffhanger. Here the Lions won all ten of their own scrums, and half of the six in which the Wallabies had the put-in. It is impossible to play attacking rugby when you are on the back foot, and that is where the Wallabies spent the vast majority of the game.

 

The result sees very different repercussions for the two coaches. Warren Gatland’s highly contentious decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll is forgotten in an avalanche of praise as he becomes the first series-winning British and Irish Lions coach this century. He can now return to his “day job” as coach of Wales and look forward to preparing g them for the 2015 world cup. Robbie Deans’s tenure as Wallabies coach may not last two more days, let alone the two years before that tournament. Australia play New Zealand in the first game of the Rugby Championship in six weeks and we can expect to see a different man at the helm for that game. The question is more whether that man is Ewen McKenzie or Jake White, rather than if the incumbent will still be in charge. Deans has held the post for six seasons, during which Australia have failed to win a Bledisloe Cup or the World Cup. The perception is that the Wallabies have not developed greatly under his leadership. There were a number of selection issues before the Lions series, none bigger than the question mark over James O’Connor as an international fly-half. And the weakness at the scrum which has dogged Australia on and off in recent years reappeared this weekend at the most inopportune moment. As a World Cup winning prop, a Wallaby veteran and a coach whose teams are renowned for their attacking rugby, I expect to see Ewen McKenzie anointed as new coach of Australia before the old rivalry is renewed with New Zealand in August.

Comments

  1. Andrew Starkie says:

    Very disappointed saty night. Lions too good. Great report, Tim

  2. Tim Ladhams says:

    Thanks Andrew. Thought they were right back in it at 16-19 but the battering told in the end. Good to see a couple of high- speed, high quality tries late on. I’d like to think we’ll see the Wallabies doing something similar as soon as McKenzie’s sorted out the scrummaging and is playing his gun backs in the right positions.

  3. Outplayed and out thought. Although I’m still trying to work out the scrum laws. At least three times the lions hookers popped up, which I thought was a penalty against and often the breakaways were unbound and pushing the wallabie’s scrum to the side, while their tight five walked around. Not so much “a dominant scrum” as one better versed in cheating…

  4. Tim Ladhams says:

    Agree the scrum is often a mystery and fans left in limbo until the ref’s arm indicates which side he’s penalizing. However, on Saturday the Lions were invariably going forward irrespective of whose head pooped out first. This referee is known to make an early call as to which scrum is dominant and base his decisions from there – as soon as the Lions smashed the first couple of scrums it was going to be a long night for the Wallabies’ tight five.

    Ewen McKenzie was a top class prop in an era of great scrummaging sides, so he’ll make it a focus from the get-go.

  5. Agreed Tim on romain’s decisions based on dominance. But there were resets when the Lions went down in the front row, yet when the Aussies did the same it was an immediate penalty and sinbinning?

    I was born and bred in in Qld, went to a gps (rugby playing) school, have friends who have played for the wallabies and can take or leave rugby unless it is a big game. My 9yr old son has no interest in the game because “nothing happens”. The game has shot itself in the foot…

  6. Luke Reynolds says:

    Another great report Tim. Really glad McKenzie got the job over White, hope he can get the Wallabies to play in the same attractive style as the Reds have in his tenure there. Despite the ordinary performance in the Sydney Test, I really enjoyed the series, Lions tours are a wonderful event.

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