British & Irish Lions 41
LEIGH Halfpenny contributed 21 points as the Lions rose to the challenge in Sydney, claiming their first series victory in 16 years as they crushed Australia.
Tries from Alex Corbisiero, Jonathan Sexton, George North and Jamie Roberts helped take the tourists home and crown one of the great Lions performances.
But Halfpenny was the shining star.
He nailed eight out of nine goal-kicks and also set up two tries midway through the second half. Before the game was over, he was confirmed as man of the series, an award that was richly deserved.
Also outstanding was Alun Wyn Jones, who led from the front and excelled in attack and defence.
The annihilation vindicated Warren Gatland’s controversial selection that had seen Brian O’Driscoll dramatically left out.
But, credit, the great Irishman. He had a smile on his face at the end.
There was a poignant moment at full-time when O’Driscoll embraced with Jamie Roberts, who had ousted him for the series decider.
The Lions were immense, building their win on the back of a powerful scrum, with Alex Corbisiero, Richard Hibbard and Adam Jones proving too much for the Wallabies when the game was a contest.
All those who had queued up to rubbish Gatland’s selection were left looking more than a bit silly.
Virtually all of the New Zealander’s big calls came off and the Lions didn’t just rely on brute force to win, with three backs scoring tries in the second half and silencing those in Australia who had derided the tourists as mere slabs of red meat.
Gatland looked a relieved man at the end. He said he didn’t want to gloat, but he deserves credit for having the courage of his convictions and making a call on O’Driscoll that was based on rugby rather than sentiment.
The Lions were ahead 19-10 at the break, having reigned supreme at the scrum, only for the Wallabies to typically haul themselves back into the game.
The tourists’ set-piece dominance brought them a stream of penalties, with Australia unable to withstand the pressure on both sides of the set-piece.
Australia found themselves behind after just 76 seconds.
The score followed a mistake by Will Genia, who spilled Jonathan Sexton’s kick-off, allowing the tourists to pour forward from the ensuing scrum.
First, Mike Phillips and Tommy Bowe attacked down the right, then the ball was spread infield, with Alun Wyn Jones going close near the posts before Corbisiero evaded Benn Robinson’s tackle to cross.
Australia were all over the place. They found it hard to match the intensity of the tourists and kept gifting them penalties, not least because of their malfunctioning set-piece.
All across the pitch there were significant battles being won by the Lions. Hibbard came off best after a collision with George Smith, who had to leave the field for treatment, while North didn’t so much tackle Israel Folau as manhandle him.
Hibbard was in danger of wrecking himself as well as Australia as he threw himself into tackles and carries with almost suicidal commitment. Alun Wyn Jones, Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau and Corbisiero were others who seemed everywhere in the opening half.
The tourists were ahead 16-3 in the 16th minute, and things went from bad to worse for the Wallabies when Ben Alexander was sin-binned after hitting the deck and Halfpenny kicked the resultant penalty.
With Folau leaving the field because of a hamstring injury, Australia appeared to be looking down both barrels of a loaded shotgun.
They went for touch from a number of kickable penalties, spurning three-points in pursuit of tries.
But their gambling eventually paid off on the stroke of half-time when sustained pressure yielded a try from a short-range scrum, with James O’Connor stepping past Sexton and evading O’Brien’s attempted tackle.
Lealiifano converted and then landed two penalties at the start of the second half, meaning in the space of six minutes the Wallabies had scored 13 points and were now only three behind on the scoreboard.
Even after Halfpenny kicked his fourth penalty, the Lions were under heavy pressure, relieved only by a superb turnover from Toby Faletau 15 metres from the visitors’ line.
It proved a key moment, with the visitors clearing their lines and then not looking back.
Two tries in seven minutes broke Australia – both involving Halfpenny, who was outstanding at full-back.
The Wales international knifed through before sending out a short pass for Sexton to storm over, a try that was confirmed by the video ref.
Before Australia had properly recovered the Lions had scored again, with Halfpenny dodging in and out, leaving Genia and Joe Tomane for dead before sending George North in for the score.
Roberts powered through for try number four soon after, twisting the knife.
There was no way back for Australia. Justin Tipuric and other subs came on to play a part in sealing the game.
The Wallabies had been blown away by four tries to one. Rarely can a series have been sealed so emphatically.