British & Irish Lions 2013: Gatland gamble pays off after series win
British & Irish Lions 2013: Oisin Gregorian reflects on the series-clinching 41-16 victory over Australia
Warren Gatland knew the risks in dropping Brian O’Driscoll from the moment he made his decision. For the coach, only a win – and a convincing one at that – would be enough to detract the negativity of his selections for the third test.
Australia, buoyed by Gatland’s initial selection, entered Stadium Australia late on Saturday looking to add another great night in the stadium which announced itself to the sporting world less than 13 years ago this September.
Eighty minutes later, and not one body in the Australian panel felt in the mood to remain on the pitch.
Massive, over-hyped games often tend to underwhelm. The disappointment and bemusement of O’Driscoll’s dropping days beforehand had plenty of Lions fans scared of what to expect.
Never before in recent Lions history had the opening 10 minutes of a Test been so anticipated and feared at the same time.
What were the fans to expect? That cliched ‘cagey opening’ was certainly one of them; a quick-fire Wallaby start to send the crowd into raptures was another.
Only in a British and Irish person’s ideal world was Will Genia going to drop the ball with his first touch. Genia – of all people; the undoubted star in the Wallaby camp and George Gregan’s brilliant heir. From that resulting scrum, the Lions never looked back.
Matches can be won in early exchanges. In utterly obliterating the Wallaby scrum for the second time in the three Test series, the Lions had their foothold.
Roman Poite, often the enemy of Northern Hemisphere fans thanks to his trigger-happy use of the whistle at the breakdown and the set piece, suddenly had became the Lions’ best friend.
Messrs Gatland and Graham Rowntree knew the key to unlocking the Wallabies was the scrum, and how the Lions did that in the opening twenty minutes, leaving Robbie Deans to wish that he had a front row capable of taking the battle to them.
Penalties duly followed at the set piece as Poite began to lose his patience with the battered and bruised Australian tight five. Twenty minutes in, and the silence around Stadium Australia with the Wallabies two converted tries behind was surreal; the Lions’ opening performance was likewise.
What kind of performance was the 55,000-plus Australian support viewing? All the while, a rippling chorus of “Lions, Lions, Lions” made sure Sydney’s former Olympic Stadium wasn’t all that silent.
However, as the Lions so cruelly learned in Melbourne a week previous, the Wallabies don’t lie down easily.
James O’Connor’s neat footwork, and arguably the best phase of play he had done all tour, right on the buzzer did its best undo the previous 39 minutes of effort. O’Connor’s try typified the Australian attitude towards the end of the half.
Four times prior, captain James Horwill played risk by refusing not to go for the posts. For O’Connor’s try, fifth time proved the charm. In went the Wallabies to their changing room at half-time, their mood completely changed; the series once again within sight.
Now was moment of the Lions to stand up and stamp their authority on the entire series. The wind was back in both the sails of the fans and Wallabies. Blood was scented, but the Lions managed to stem the tide at just the right moment.
Over went Jonny Sexton, his celebration telling. Soon after, George North touched down in the corner. Both series-clinching moments, both masterfully set up from deep by the delightful Leigh Halfpenny.
A handful of minutes later, Jamie Roberts repaid Gatland’s faith with an excellent line to compliment Conor Murray’s eye of a needle pass. The cameras turned to the shaken Wallabies under the posts; they knew the match was done for them.
All the while, O’Driscoll sat on the bench, smiling. He knew this wasn’t the end he wanted, but his undoubted attitude before and after his dropping surely had its own effect in and around the camp.
He may have not played in Sydney, but his effort, guile and leadership in the weeks leading up to this moment meant the former captain will forever have his impact in a winning Lions tour. The same goes for Paul O’Connell and Sam Warburton – who would have surely started had it not been for their respective injuries.
As for Gatland and his coaching staff, both got the performance that was necessary to justify previous selections and often one-directional tactics which did its best to frustrate throughout the tour.
Both he and Rob Howley will return to the Welsh set up eager to continue where the latter has left off. As for Robbie Deans, his short-term plan may not be as simple as that.