Australia 16 British and Irish Lions 41: So much for the momentum being with the Wallabies. Ultimately, the Lions saved their best until last so ending 16 years of hurt in the grandest of manners; a pummelling of the Wallabies earning the tourists their second biggest Test win and 41 points is the most the Lions have ever scored in a Test match.
This was a stunning demonstration of what has become known as Warrenball, and as an aside it completely vindicated Warren Gatland's selection and tactics to such a degree that he could probably name his price to take the Lions to New Zealand. The brand has been revived with the most important currency of all – they're winners again alright.
Emotionally, the Lions were perfectly primed, and clearly that early-week break in Noosa also revived spirits, as did Gatland’s Welsh-dominated selection. The Lions played with a combination of direct physical power, unremitting intensity and variety from start to finish, which exposed chinks in the Aussie defence, not least around the 10-12 channel.
As important as any selection was the return from fitness of Alex Corbisiero, who fittingly set the ball rolling with the first try and then so destroyed poor Ben Alexander at scrum-time that the Wallabies tighthead was binned in the 24th minute and never re-appeared. The carnage wasn't so acute thereafter, but the Lions' supremacy here never wavered.
Richard Hibbard’s recall assuredly helped in this regard too, as did his physicality around the park. Alun-Wyn Jones led from the front with a mighty, O’Connell-esque performance and Toby Faletau’s call-up was also handsomely vindicated with a powerful, dancing, carrying game at the base.
Seán O’Brien also made his presence felt at the breakdown, in tackling and in carrying in a magnificent display which along with the unremitting Dan Lydiate, made for a much more physical backrow.
Jonny Sexton, who would deservedly become the only other non-Welsh scorer for the Lions in the series, had another polished outing, save for one missed tackle, and managed the game superbly.
While Jamie Roberts was not used as much as anticipated, he still provided a missing midfield target over the gainline, Jonathan Davies was error-free outside him, while the potent George North and Tommy Bowe were far more involved than last week.
However the star of the show was Leigh Halfpenny, his 21-point haul setting a new Lions record in a Test match for points scored, while he also eclipsed Neil Jenkins for points scored in a series and on a tour here in Australia, as well as winning the man of the match award and player of the series award.
And this time it wasn’t just his phenomenal goal-kicking of eight from nine, nor even his typically immaculate positional game and kicking from hand, but he also countered beautifully and hit the line perfectly to set up two tries in a virtuoso performance. The lineout was again not without its imperfections, and Mike Phillips’s service, mobility and kicking were not at their best, but these were relatively minor glitches.
The ANZ Stadium, as the Olympic Stadium is now known, has a Stade de France-like location in Homebush on the western outskirts of Sydney; a 45 minute snaking drive through traffic from the city centre. In other words it doesn’t seem to be very popular amongst rugby folk, but it is magnificently appointed and the sense of occasion was possibly the pick of the tour thus far.
It was certainly the most significant, the five-week, 10-match tour all coming down to this, and being defined by these 80 minutes. The support level was as close to 50-50 as made no difference, with most of those in the darkened upper tier again wearing red. But it was thanks to the team in red that those in gold clothing or helmets were effectively taken out of the game from almost literally the kick-off
The conditions were also fabulous, but such was the noise level that the Wallabies appeared to suffer a breakdown in communications when Sexton kicked off deep to the right and Will Genia, expecting Kane Douglas to claim the ball, fumbled, thereby granting the Lions an attacking scrum immediately. Although this merely led to an indirect Lions penalty for early engagement, Phillips tapped and went blind to Bowe, thereby setting up good ruck ball with the width of the pitch to play with.
O’Brien and Alun-Wyn Jones drove the ball up in turn in little pods of the opening Lions power play before Corbisiero spun through Benn Robinson’s tackle to score by the posts. After a thunderous roar died down, Halfpenny tagged on the conversion.
James Horwill elected for one of Kurtley Beale's undercooked penalties up the line rather than have a shot at goal, but the returning icon, George Smith, spilled the ball and was briefly concussed when colliding heads with Hibbard. Worse was to come for the Wallabies, when Joe Tomane countered up the middle, he was felled by the tree-chopping Lydiate, and O'Brien was quickly in for the turnover penalty, which Halfpenny landed unerringly from the kick-off spot.
From the restart by Beale to Faletau, referee Romain Poite correctly called both Hibbard and Alun-Wyn Jones for obstruction and Christian Leali'ifano opened the Wallabies' account. This time Wycliff Palu couldn't gather the restart which, for the first time in the series, Sexton kicked short to the left for the chase. Cue scrum, cue Lions penalty, cue Halfpenny three-pointer from outside the 10-metre line and wide to the left.
Within three minutes, another scrum, another Lions penalty and you can guess the rest – 16-3 to the Lions we were still in the first quarter. Sexton, Davies and Hibbard effected a choke tackle, Faletau made big yards off the back of the scrum and Beale, who had a poor series, lost out badly in a kicking duel with Halfpenny.
After an O’Brien intercept, Bowe spilled a tough pass from Hibbard with the Lions well placed, but thanks to their scrum knock-ons were a weapon, and this time Alexander was binned when again failing to cope with the pressure coming from Corbiisiero before Halfpenny made it 19-3.
The stunned Aussies also lost Israel Folau when extending his hamstring from a huge punt by Sexton in behind him, and the Wallabies were surviving on their wits, but to their credit they withstood the 10 minutes and Horwill repeatedly told Beale to kick penalties up the line nearing half-time.
In overtime, this was rewarded from an attacking five metre scrum, James O’Connor dancing through as first receiver when badly missed by Sexton and O’Brien before taking Phillips tackle to score by the posts.
Within two minutes of the restart it was a one-score game when Leali’ifa now kicked a penalty when Lydiate didn’t roll away after the tackle, and then he made it a three-point game when Hibbard came in from the side. Ben Mowen was living offside with impunity, and the Lions lineout, which was again taking an age without Paul O’Connell calling it, coughed up a fine attacking platform. And when they came knocking again, not for the first time on the night, Mowen knocked on an attempted intercept from an offside position.
It seemed the game might be slipping away from them but they simply upped the ante further while making pro-active use of their bench. Faletau won an important turnover, and Sexton chipped from inside the 22 delicately for George North, that big play forcing a lineout in Aussie territory.
From another Warrenball powerplay of direct running and recycling through nine phases, Corbisiero making good yards, Sexton brought in Bowe off his wing from deep, his quick hands to Davies getting him outside the hard-up defence to make a half-break and Halfpenny brilliantly took it on before his offload inside enabled the supporting Sexton to round the posts.
That was the cue for the Fields of Athenry before Halfpenny countered from Genia’s poor kick – even he went down with the sinking Wallabies ship – and ran between Genia and Tomane before drawing Beale and putting North over.
The fullback missed the conversion, but added another when Roberts took a superb in and out line from Conor Murray’s infield snipe off a lineout – again originating from a Lions’ scrum penalty – and perfectly timed pass to score. Murray again made a very composed and effective impression off the bench.
Game over. Now it was time for Bread of Heaven, most appropriately of all, soon to be followed by Swing Low, with a few bars of “cheer-i-o” in between for the departing supporters in yellow. And there was a steady flow of them, from long before the end.
The coaching staff could even left enclosed glass cage to celebrate with some of their players fully two minutes from the end.
That must have felt very nice.
Scoring sequence – 2 mins: Corbisiero try, Halfpenny con 0-7; 8 mins: Halfpenny pen 0-10; 10 mins: Leali'ifano pen 3-10; 13 mins: Halfpenny pen 3-13; 16 mins: Halfpenny pen 3-16; 25 mins: Halfpenny pen 3-19; 40 +2 mins: O'Connor try, Leali'ifano con 10-19; (half-time 10-19); 46 mins: Leali'ifano pen 16-19; 51 mins: Halfpenny pen 16-22; 56 mins: Sexton try, Halfpenny con 16-29; 64 mins: North try 16-34; 68 mins: Roberts try, Halfpenny con 16-41.
Australia: Kurtley Beale (Melbourne Rebels); Israel Folau (NSW Waratahs), Adam Ashley-Cooper (NSW Waratahs), Christian Leali'ifano (Brumbies), Joe Tomane (Brumbies); James O'Connor (Melbourne Rebels), Will Genia (Queensland Reds); Benn Robinson (NSW Waratahs), Stephen Moore (Brumbies), Ben Alexander (Brumbies), Kane Douglas (NSW Waratahs), James Horwill (Queensland Reds, captain), Ben Mowen (Brumbies), George Smith (Brumbies), Wycliff Palu (NSW Waratahs).
Replacements: Michael Hooper (NSW Waratahs) for Smith (5-10 and 66 mins), Jesse Mogg (Brumbies) for Folau (26 mins), Sekope Kepu (NSW Waratahs) for Smith (27-35 and for Alexander 35 mins), Saia Fainga'a (Queensland Reds) for Moore (55-60 and 72 mins), Ben McCalman (Western Force) for Palu (60 mins), Rob Simmons (Queensland Reds) for Douglas (62 mins), James Slipper (Queensland Reds) for Robinson (66 mins), Nick Phipps (Melbourne Rebels) for Genia (70 mins).
British & Irish Lions: Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues/Wales); Tommy Bowe (Ulster/Ireland), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets/Wales), Jamie Roberts (Cardiff Blues/Wales), George North (Scarlets/Wales); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/Ireland), Mike Phillips (Bayonne/Wales); Alex Corbisiero (London Irish/England), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys/Wales), Adam Jones (Ospreys/Wales), Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys/Wales) (Captain), Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers/England), Dan Lydiate (Dragons/Wales), Sean O'Brien (Leinster/Ireland), Toby Faletau (Dragons/Wales).
Replacements: Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers/England) for Hibbard (47 mins),Conor Murray (Munster/Ireland) for Phillips (51 mins), Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers/England) for A Jones (55 mins), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys/Wales) for Faletau (55-60 mins) and for O'Brien (60 mins), Owen Farrell (Saracens/England) for Sexton (63 mins), Makovina Vunipola (Saracens/England) for Corbisiero, Richie Gray (Scotland) for Parling (both 68 mins), Manu Tuilagi (Leicester Tigers/England) for Roberts (70 mins).
Referee: Romain Poite (France).