DONAL LENIHAN: New Zealand in 2017 is Gatland’s to turn down

Agony or ecstasy, there really is nothing in between. So said Warren Gatland an hour after Saturday night’s captivating third Test in Sydney, and how right he is.

If ever a coach put his reputation on the line in advance of a crucial Test it was him.

He knew the fallout from omitting Brian O’Driscoll from the side could be incendiary, but hadn’t factored on it being quite so vitriolic. He has always had the courage of his convictions and has never courted popularity. What he has done is preside over only the fifth Lions series win in 125 years. For that he deserves immense credit.

If you can honestly say you saw that performance and result coming, take up clairvoyance.

While Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts fully justified their selection as a midfield partnership, it has to be said that the platform laid down by the Lions front five was outstanding.

Robbie Deans has a habit of talking about the “point of difference”, that element in a tight contest where one side has a clear advantage over the other. Even someone witnessing an international for the first time would have no difficulty in identifying that point in this one.

The Lions scrum frightened the life out of the Wallabies and they simply couldn’t cope.

At last the power game favoured by Gatland and identified as a roadmap to success in advance of the tour delivered. His career path for the next four years is now set in stone.

After taking Wales to the World Cup in 2015, he will be handed the reins of the Lions operation once again for the tour to his native New Zealand in 2017. It is certainly his to turn down, but I think he would relish the prospect.

It aided the Lions cause on Saturday that in French referee Romain Poite the tourists had the perfect official at the key point in the series. Poite is known for his strict policing of the scrum and will always roll with the dominant force once it is established early. He will not put up with front-rowers who resort to foul means or illegal manoeuvres to aid their cause and has never been slow to sanction the persistent transgressor.

Even by his standards, issuing a yellow card to a prop after only 24 minutes was sensational and the fact that the experienced Ben Alexander, in his 51st Test, suffered that ignominy showed what an impact the returning Alex Corbisiero had on this game. To row in with a try after only two minutes of play copper-fastened a dream outing for him. To think he didn’t even make the original squad. Such things happen on Lions tours, with Martin Corry having a similar impact in 2001 after being called out as a replacement after the opening game.

For all the technical and tactical changes this game has undergone since professionalism, the one thing that has remained constant is the psychological impact a dominant scrum can have on the mindset of both sides. It’s not often at this level that one side carries such a clear advantage but when it manifests itself, the damage caused can be catastrophic. Think back to Twickenham in 2012 when Ireland were similarly dismissed — Corbisiero was also at loosehead for England that day — and you begin to get the picture.

This game was always going to be about who dealt with the pressure best. Will Genia was openly seeking to take the full weight of that expectation on his shoulders in advance of the game and actively questioned the capacity for the Lions to deal with it, given the relative lack of success the tourists have enjoyed over the years.

So for him to drop the kick-off, deep in his 22, and offer the Lions the chance to launch their reconstructed scrum so deep in enemy territory was invaluable. It proved the catalyst for that opening try from the inevitable free kick that arose from the very first engagement and had Genia and his charges on the back foot from the off.

You could visibly see the Lions grow in stature, even from that early point. The only question to be asked was how it took until the final Test for the proven scrummaging power of Richard Hibbard to be unleashed along with Corbisiero and the irrepressible Adam Jones.

Tom Youngs, who had an outstanding tour, was always seen as an impact player off the bench, but so good were his early performances he forced his way into the starting side.

By reverting to his original plan, Gatland extracted the maximum return.

The other thing that shone through in the absence of tour captain Sam Warburton and team leaders Paul O’Connell and O’Driscoll was the character of the squad. With the Wallabies reeling in a 16-point lead, reducing it into three within seven minutes of the restart, the unthinkable was on the cards — not to mention the very future of the Lions concept.

Somehow the Lions hung in there, with the Wallabies pummelling their line in a seven-minute period of sustained attack, but their incredible defence held firm. It was the defining period of the series and defence coach Andy Farrell deserves huge credit for his role in that.

What also shone through was the willingness of some hitherto unsung heroes to step up. Principal among those was the captain for the night Alun-Wyn Jones and his second row partner Geoff Parling, who did as much as any man could trying to fill the boots of O’Connell. Sean O’Brien and Toby Faletau also rose to the challenge on the occasion of their first Test starts.

Behind the scrum Jonny Sexton was superb. He controlled and orchestrated all those around him with the composure of a seasoned Lions veteran and also rowed in with the decisive score of the match. However, it was the man of the series Leigh Halfpenny who offered fresh leadership from behind and showed that he is far more than a mere kicking machine.

While his return of eight from nine with the boot played a hugely significant role in this historic win, it was his positional play and lines of running in the build up to the two crucial tries from Sexton and George North, when delivering the decisive scoring pass, that really set him apart.

What a historic night too for four Lions Test debutants, introduced off the bench and all playing their part in closing out a series win. For Justin Tipuric, Owen Farrell, Manu Tuilagi, it doesn’t get much better than that and when Richie Gray was sprung with just minutes to go, at last Scotland had a presence on the field for the first time in the series.

For Brian O’Driscoll the irony will not be lost that on a night when the forwards finally delivered the type of quality ball his game thrives on, he was powerless to take advantage.

Unfortunately, sport doesn’t often deliver the fairytale ending. Just ask George Smith. He will want to forget his nightmare comeback, but given his frightening collision with Hibbard from his opening carry, is unlikely to remember much of this game anyway. How he came back on the field after that was mind blowing.

In time O’Driscoll will recognise his magnificent input to this series win and by playing in two of the three Tests is entitled to his place in history. He didn’t need this win for that to happen anyway.

The Lions have delivered what they came to do. Well done to all concerned.


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