The tale of two, last gasp, missed penalty kicks had lead us to this deciding game. It was 2001 all over again and I for one did not want to go through the pain and anguish of what I experienced near enough 12 years ago to the day! When Leigh Halfpenny’s penalty fell short in Melbourne, I started having flashbacks all over again, but the one thing I could predict with the unnerving accuracy of an Olympic archer, was the pounding my liver was going to take in the lead-up to the game. After another week closer to cirrhosis, the final leg of the Lions tour was not going to be a celebratory lap of honour, but hopefully a solid preparation for the glory that could possibly be “the Saturday night to remember”.
However, the Test team announcement on the Tuesday saw some huge surprises. It seemed that Coach Gatland had got his own way at the selection table when 10 Welshmen (just not enough in my opinion!) were chosen in the starting line-up which was beefed up like an East German shotputter. But daggers were thrust through Irish hearts, when the elder statesman of the touring party, and the former “best centre in the world”, Brian O’Driscoll, was dropped completely from the match day squad. I actually went for a “swift half” with an Irish native the day after the team was announced only to be told that “she shouldn’t even be talking to me”!!!! Emotions were certainly running strong.
There is no room for sentimentality in sport any more, especially where the prize, the pressure and the intensity is so great. O’Driscoll has epitomized the spirit of rugby for so long. He is a legend of the game – a moniker I rarely bestow on anyone. But his omission sent shockwaves amongst both the British and Aussie press:
BRIAN O’Driscoll should not only be in the Lions side for Saturday night’s decider, he should be leading the team onto the field as captain.- Tim Horan
A number of decisions on this summer’s tour suggests that the “concept and ethos of the Lions has been forgotten. Nobody can tell me that Jamie Roberts is a better player than Brian O’Driscoll. Robbie Deans must be laughing all the way to Saturday.- Willie John McBride
You just wonder if they got a lucky bag and picked some names out. I was convinced Brian O’Driscoll should have been named as captain. It’s catastrophic leaving him out. He’s still one of the top centres in world rugby. He’s a fantastic guy and has been on four tours and knows it all inside out. It’s a massive mistake.- Ian Robertson
It is a terrible mistake. O’Driscoll has been quiet. But he has been the clarion call once Paul O’Connell got injured. I am totally at a loss.- Keith Wood
Warren Gatland may have made a mistake by axing veteran centre Brian O’Driscoll. I would have paired him with Jamie Roberts for the third Test in Sydney. For me, they are the best centre partnership in world rugby.- Sir Ian McGeechan
For the life of me, I cannot fathom why he [Gatland] has done it. He has never toed the line traditionally. He has had some amazing results, he’s a fantastic coach and rightly the Lions coach, but is he just making a statement that he can do this? – Shane Byrne
It wouldn’t be a genuine Lions tour without some abrasiveness between the 4 Nations. There is always going to be issues with the makeup of any Lions team – there’s never enough Welshmen, Irishmen, Englishmen or Sco…. no, don’t think we will ever have that issue!!!
When a close friend of mine that really only has a passing interest in sport made an impassioned plea to secure a ticket to the game and then drive from Melbourne on the morning of the match, it truly shows the cult appeal that a Lions series can bring. Obviously it’s never just about the rugby, but once you become part of the whole experience it’s a high like no other.
Around Sydney in the lead-up to the game, the highly publicised “Sea of Red” was out in force. Everywhere you went, there were red jerseys – unless you were Irish, then the green version was the colour of choice as symbolic support for the ousted BO’D! Every pub you passed saw Brits of all ages camped out sampling the local amber nectar. What amazed me this time round was the sheer number of the “more mature” tourist – it seems that rugby tour folklore remains in high regard – is 70 the new 40?
Sydney was abuzz with rugby fever. There was little other interest around the city. The day was gloroius – god had turned it on for the game they play in heaven. The stadium itself is a 20 minute train ride from the centre of town. Trains were leaving every 10 minutes and were packed to the point where there were disappointed punters left on the platform – mainly because of those vital 10 minutes of lost drinking time, having to wait for the next train. Upon arrival at Olympic Park, we finally found where the Aussies had been hiding all day. We all adjourned to the monstrous beer tent that had perhaps the longest bar in the world – and it was still 10 deep throughout. Bulk purchases were necessary just to keep hydrated.
The atmosphere in Olympic Park was pumping. The flood of the 83,702 fans into the ground created log jams everywhere. After trekking up the 6 levels and then another 50 odd rows of seats later I said goodbye to my sherpa guide, and my arrival at the summit was greeted by a good number of Lions fans in the manner I have now been accustomed to.
The view from the roof was spectacular, but watching ants play for one of the biggest prizes in rugby is not my cup of tea. At least I was on the half way line – right!!! From the kick-off, the roar of the Lions fans was ear shattering. It got even louder when Will Genia dropped the opening kickoff! A minute later the Lions had scored their first try when Corbisiero bobbed up and bounced over the line. As the game started to take shape the Lions forward strength began to assert itself. When Richard Hibbard, the hooker from Ty Bach, who had been brought in to add some much needed steel, used his face/head to stop evergreen Aussie George Smith. It was Smith who came off second best and had to spend 10 minutes off the field just to check he still had all his faculties in tact!
When the Wallabies prop Alexander was sin-binned for essentially being crap, there was air of inevitability about the result. When the Lions jumped to 19-3, the Wallabies then sparked into action. A twinkle-toed solo try from O’Connor after the siren and two penalties in 5 minutes after the break saw the deficit reduced to only 3 points. When Hibbard was replaced early in the second half, he had put his body on the line so many times the physios had no idea which part of his body needed ice the most!
With just over a half hour to go, mine and many others’ moods feared the worst. The Aussies were on top and had all the momentum. The carnage was immense. On 55 minutes there was a comical moment when 4 players were down and all needed treatment for bleeding injuries. At one stage I think they were even trying to ask qualified doctor Jamie Roberts, playing in the centre for the Lions, to help out with the stitches! This may well have been the turning point though, as straight after this mini-break, the Lions scored a well worked try down the left, after a half break through Davies and then Halfpenny, who sent Sexton through under the posts. If you thought the roar at opening try was loud, the decibels this time were immeasurable.
Just minutes later, this happened:
Halfpenny again made the break from nothing to kill any thought of a comeback. When the Flying Doctor Roberts bust through a weak Aussie defence less than 2 minutes later it was all over. The Gatland masterplan had been executed to a tee and beef and brawn had won the day. The Sydney party had only just begun and the celebrations on the pitch were only a precursor as to what was soon to be occurring throughout Sydney over the next 5 or 6 hours (make that 25 or 26 hours!). The Lions players and officials stayed on the field for the next 40 minutes soaking it all in. This was the first series win since 1997 and we just hope that it’s not another 16 years between drinks – well not between drinks as we all know that they will keep flowing no matter the result!
DHL Rugby Series Third Test
AUSTRALIA 16 – 41 BRITISH LIONS
(Lions win the series 2-1)
And the drinks did flow until the wee hours of the morning. So much so that it was reported that some Sydney establishments ran out of beer (2001 all over again)! It still amazes me that some places are not prepared for what is possibly their biggest drinking day for 12 years! The pub we were in was dreadfully understaffed, but I guess there are only so many backpackers to go round that actually wanted to work today!
The third installment of Mic-watch saw yet another world-class effort from the Brummie.
Another tour has come and gone. The series itself was as engrossing as it could get. The end result could not have been sweeter and the craic will again be lauded over for years to come. New Zealand in 2017 has already been discussed and I have no doubt that as that time draws closer, the stories, the pictures, the memories from the past 12 years will grow into the stuff legends are made of. Let’s hope all our livers recover in time!!!! See you across the ditch in 4 years time.