Leigh Halfpenny gives Lions edge in historical series win over Australia
Lions player of series delivers on many different levels of the game
Leigh Halfpenny celebrates after the Lions victory and his man of the match performance. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.
Blood, toil and sweat but there were no tears, not for the Lions. All the cliches that have been coined, the phrases minted, the speeches delivered to try to capture what it is to be a British & Irish Lion are all such an inadequate summation of what it means to wear the famous red shirt. They offer only the palest intimations of the pride and passion that inspired the 23 players who took to the pitch in this Sydney Test and their 20 team-mates on the sidelines. But everyone who watched this match, the thousands in the stadium, the millions around the world, will know now what words cannot express.
This was one of the great Lions performances in their 125-year history. When those 23 players are old and grey they will still be raising toasts in its memory and the old hands will say to the young players who are lucky enough to follow after them: “What you have to do, lads, is summon up the spirit of Sydney because that is what it means to be a Lion.”
At the heart of it was Leigh Halfpenny, who has broken the records for most points scored in a Lions Test and most points scored in a series by a Lions player and was named man of the match and man of the series. “Our talisman,” Alun Wyn Jones called him, once he had put down the bottle of champagne he was swigging from.
“I can’t put this into words,” Halfpenny said. He will not be alone in that. “This is everything I have dreamed of as a kid growing up watching Lions tours. I would always dream I could be part of one. Now to be part of a winning Lions tour is one of the best feelings ever.”
The final 13 minutes, he said, after Jamie Roberts had crossed to put the team 23 points ahead, were the best he had ever known on a rugby field. By then the Australian fans were flooding the gangways, turning their backs on the history unfolding in front of them. The Lions support, tens of thousands of them, serenaded them out.
The 21 points alone were enough to make Halfpenny man of the match. His kicks made more of an impression than showed on the scoreboard. His first penalty, landed with insouciant ease from the halfway line, hamstrung the opposition. “Australia knew if Leigh can kick it from the 50 metres they would have to be whiter than white,” said Alun Wyn Jones, “and that enabled us to get a bit more of a foothold around the breakdown.”
But Halfpenny contributed so much more than that. There were the raking kicks out of hand, pushing Australia back into their own half. There were three tackles, two of them crucial, and better still those two assists. Halfpenny ghosted up into the line and showed the world he can do more with his feet than boot the ball. He set up Jonathan Sexton for one try. Minutes later he was back, stepping inside one tackle, skirting a second, then passing to George North for another.
So it was Halfpenny who sparked that sparkling final quarter, the flowering of all the Lions’ latent attacking talent that had lain dormant through the second Test. But those tries, three in 13 minutes, were only the icing on top. The match had been won before that, when the Lions showed the spirit, character and commitment that is just as much a part of their rich tradition as all the free-running rugby that followed. At half-time Alun Wyn Jones said they had spoken about “being prepared to go to a place not many players go to, where you have pushed your body to the absolute limit”. This was what the coach, Andy Farrell, said they would have to do, he told the players the jersey demanded it of them.
For 60 minutes this was a game of staggering ferocity. If, as James Horwill said, much of what the Lions capitalised on were “silly errors” by his own side, that was only a reflection of the intensity of the match. Australia buckled at the scrum, crushed like garlic in a press, bodies oozing out of the side and popping out of the top as the Lions drove through them. They were left smeared across the turf. Warren Gatland reckoned Alex Corbisiero should have been man of the match. It could just as well have been either of his colleagues in the frontrow, Adam Jones and Richard Hibbard.
And Brian O’Driscoll? He was there at the end, taking a long, leaden-footed walk towards the team. Then, as he got near, he broke into a sprint, flashed his old familiar smile and leapt into the arms of Andy Farrell. He, of all people, knew the value of what he had just seen and what he had just been part of. The career of one Lions hero has come to a close. Many more are just starting.