Saturday, July 06, 2013

AUSTRALIA-16 LIONS-41

HoR pro logo greenIn a surprise move announced at 3:15am this morning Irish time, JL Pagano has been dropped from the HoR team and this final Monday morning match writeup of the 2013/14 season will instead be penned by James Dean Bradfield, lead vocalist with the Welsh alternative rock band Manic Street Preachers.

Only kidding. It’s actually me JLP after all. But you probably knew that.

ENDS v MEANS

PART ONE – THE #JUSTICEFORBOD THING

Look…anyone who doesn’t get why Irish fans were upset about Brian O’Driscoll’s omission from this third test doesn’t really get sport, let alone rugby.  The man isn’t just a legend, he is also, as the Aussies would say, a “top bloke”. 

And when you have followed every second of his career from his senior cup school days all the way through to the start of his “one more year”, you’re bound to take a decision like Gatland’s to heart.

So although some did take the spirit of the hashtag #JusticeforBOD a lot further than it should have gone, to see the result of the third test as some sort of “vindication” of the decision, or even worse to feel anyone who criticised it should somehow be “embarrassed”, is nothing short of absurd.

Whatever extreme views people want to impose on this debate, it is still possible for the following three factors to co-exist…

  1. Jonathan “Fox” Davies is a worthy Lion who had a solid outing in the Third Test.
  2. Brian O’Driscoll being left out of the matchday 23 did not bring about the victory.
  3. The vast majority of true Irish rugby fans were 100% behind the Lions from kickoff to final whistle on Saturday.

We can argue those points from now until the next Lions tour.  But while I could not ignore the topic, since this is meant to be a match writeup, I feel it should be more about the players who were on the pitch so I will leave it at that for now.

PART TWO - THE ACTUAL MATCH  (FIRST HALF)

A half of two halves.

The keys to this match for the Lions, as far as I saw it anyway, were twofold…score early, and capitalise on Wallaby errors.  Right from the kickoff, we did both.

I was disappointed by Will Genia’s reaction to his knocked-on first touch.  Perhaps Kane Douglas shouldn’t have called for a ball he clearly didn’t have a bead on, but Genia is a senior player, the ball was ultimately falling to him, he knocked it on, he should have held his hand up. 

Instead he had a go at Douglas and as the Wallabies prepared for the first scrum they were already in disarray.  Fair play to the tourists they weren’t for hanging about and pretty much anyone could have been the one crashing over the line…there was a degree of irony to the fact that it turned out to be someone who wasn’t in the original squad though!

The Aussies’ attempts to make a quick reply were literally stopped in their tracks after George Smith had his bell rung after a collision with Hibbard.  Much was made during the week of the decision to add the veteran from the 2001 series to the back row, and to effectively lose him at his best within 5 minutes was a major blow to Robbie Deans’ plans.  Having Folau limp off after just 27m didn’t help much either.

Try-scorer Corbisero played a large part in the Lions’ lead ballooning to 13 points as the front row made mincemeat of their counterparts, winning pen after pen with contributions from both props.  They showed just the right amount of patience with the hit and the way things clicked into gear it seems like they had some kind of cosmic connection with the referee, something that of course wasn’t there so much in tests 1 & 2.

But I still reckon there was a silver lining to be found in the cloud of the Wallaby scrum.  The sin-binning of Ben Alexander not only removed a large part of their front row problems from the equation, it also instilled the right amount of the “victim mentality” they needed and from the moment Leigh Halfpenny kicked the penalty to make it 19-3 they came to life, tackling like demons and as things turned out the last thing they would have wanted was the half-time whistle.

In fact it could be said that a key moment of the match was Geoff Parling’s ankle tap on Jesse Mogg – a score looked very possible then and who knows what kind of momentum that could have provided for Robbie Deans’ men.

In some ways, the Australian most responsible for their try right at the end of the first half was Les Kiss.  As effective as his “choke tackle” has been, I still feel it sometimes leads to Irish players going for high challenges when perhaps a more conventional challenge is required.

First Sean O’Brien got himself (harshly I thought) pinged for a high tackle on AAC and then after a series of charges for the line O’Connor ran past Sexton like he wasn’t there, not the first time in this series the out-half has thought too much about his defensive actions.

And so with the buzzer long gone Christian Leali’ifano popped over the extras to make it 10-19 and still very, very much a contest.

PART THREE - THE ACTUAL MATCH (SECOND HALF)

The Aussies did what they could to keep the momentum going from the second half kickoff and actually got to within 3 points though I wonder could they have actually taken the lead, and again, it’s Genia in the dock for me.

Surely his instincts when awarded a pen within touching distance of the Lions tryline was to tap and go? He didn’t even shape to do it but I really thought it was the better option.  Instead, much like the Lions did at an early stage last week, he and Horwill chose to go for the three and this gave the tourists time to regroup.

From there, Sexton was able to dig deep and find the range on his bombs, often following them up with telling tackles as well.  Once he was able to get his front foot game going again the Lions side of the scoreboard starting ticking over once again and it was the Racing Métro-bound man who both started and finished the move that led to the decisive try.

It would be churlish of me to ignore the contribution of Davies to the score as he slipped Leali’ifano’s tackle but it was Halfpenny that supplied the bulk of the Welsh involvement to the score and to all intents an purposes, the Wallabies were spent once the 13-point cushion was re-established.

To their credit thanks to the likes of Beale and particularly Jesse Mogg the Aussies did what they could to fight back but the Lions defence was just too solid and by this stage it was too late to be going for the tap penalties.

Eventually it was another piece of open field brilliance from Halfpenny (easily the player of the series, tour and let’s face it, northern hemisphere season) that led to North going over and not long afterwards Roberts added a fourth and that was all she wrote.

To wrap up my appraisal of the Irish, Sean O’Brien was massive at the breakdown and should have been there from minute one of test one.  There’s a similar case that could be made for Conor Murray, who’s game came on in leaps and bounds this tour and hopefully Joe Schmidt will see the benefit in November and beyond.

And an honourable mention must go to Jamie Heaslip whom I feel did nothing wrong either to be left out – a bit like Davies, Toby Faletau did some good things, some not so good things in Sydney but overall didn’t justify the replacement.  And let’s not forget Tommy Bowe who played a solid wing in tests 2 & 3; though if we’re saying players didn’t exactly out-do the people they replaced, perhaps Alex Cuthbert would feel he was in with a shout in that department.

But with the result in little doubt for most of the final quarter the game, series and tour all fizzled out with Gatland victorious and the debate beginning as to whether it was mostly his tactical awareness that won the series or rather the mistakes caused by a Wallaby team towards the end of Deans’ tenure.  Personally, I’d be more inclined to lean towards the latter.

Don’t get me wrong…Gatland and his coaching staff produced a formula that this once-off selection of top players were able to stick to for the duration of the tour, and it paid off.  Many of the actual decisions were questionable (there’s potential for another row on BOD levels over the early substitution of Sexton but what’s the point?) but at the end we have to ask ourselves what exactly we want from these tours…a win at all costs or do we first need to be sure exactly what is meant by the “British & Irish Lions” concept and actually stick to it?

A debate for another day, perhaps. 

When all is said and done, the Wallabies couldn’t last the three tests, the Lions could.  And overall, I’m happy about it. 

Now to set the countdown timer for next season.  It can’t come quickly enough for me, that’s for sure.  Thanks to everyone who followed my writeups throughout the 2012/13 campaign, I enjoyed every word of it.  JLP

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