Rugby: Lions dazzle in finale

By Wynne Gray in Sydney

Australia 16
Lions 41

Sydney went scarlet last night as the Lions and their supporters swamped the harbourside city. The Lions erased 16 years of touring torment to take the series from the Wallabies with last week's tormented soul, Leigh Halfpenny, the points scoring hero for the tourists.

His metronomic goal kicking and incisive bursts from fullback delivered all sorts of late problems as the Lions scythed and bludgeoned their way to a 41-16 victory.

Victory vindicated coach Warren Gatland's decision to flood the side with Welshmen and omit elder statesman Brian O'Driscoll for their final tilt at glory.

The Lions began strongly, were dragged back to a slim three point lead before bursting clear with three tries in the last 25 minutes.

`Warrenball', the Welshcentric style which had been so effective for the Six Nations champions was a triumphant template for this final inquisition as the Lions management and players gathered on the touchline in jubilant celebration for the final few minutes.

Glory or distress, the emotions were explicit, there was no middle ground for this decider in 80 minutes of frothing tribal conflict in Sydney's western suburbs.

The opening survey was to assess team tactics. Had the Lions moved away from the type of narrow bludgeoning power they used to try and break the Wallabies in Brisbane and Melbourne? Would the Wallaby pack stay with the revamped visiting unit and was the backline in any more unison than they had been in the previous contests?

The 83,702 crowd was left to ponder whether much rugby would break out after the errors and limited construction in their two previous meetings.

The answer was immediate and encouraging. Will Genia dropped the kick-off and the Lions' prop Alex Corbisiero ploughed across after phase play from the scrum. As jubilation engulfed the visitors, the clock showed just 78 seconds. That shock start got worse for the Wallabies when veteran flanker George Smith was knocked out in a fearful fourth minute collision with Richard Hibbard.

Smith wobbled off after the Wallabies had kicked for touch rather than goal. That decision backfired badly although Smith, surprisingly, returned five minutes later.

In his absence, Halfpenny and Christian Leali'ifano kicked penalties before Halfpenny nailed several more as the Wallaby scrum wobbled and incurred referee Romaine Poite's regular wrath.

By the opening quarter, the Lions were 16-3 ahead and in total dominance as the Wallabies wavered between adventure and regrouping. Their scrum dramas threatened to derail them as Ben Alexander was sinbinned for dropping his tighhead side.

Nothing more, surely, could happen to the hosts. They were under the hammer from a Lions side which had not had to play too much rugby but the test was sliding out of the Wallabies grasp and they were a man down. Soon they lost another. Wing Israel Folau tweaked his hamstring and was replaced after 26 minutes leaving the Wallabies with Nick Phipps as their solitary back replacement.

Spectators had starting hitting ANZ Stadium and the warm social notes four hours before kick-off as bands played in the bars which circle the exterior of the sports arena in Sydney's west. Trains rolled out of Central Station with rival supporters in full voice, chiding and amusing each other with their songs, ditties and taunts. It was the lengthy preface to the main act.

Lions goalkickers Halfpenny and Owen Farrell went through their training routines an hour before kick-off as Genia worked on his box kicks and Stephen Moore went through his lineout throwing drills on the other side of the field.

For all that attention, the Wallabies were not able to play much rugby until late in the half. It came from an unlikely source_their scrum. When Alexander's time was up in the bin, Sekope Kepu came on and seemed to keep his tighthead side more intact. With seconds left until the break, the Wallabies scrummed down 10m from the Lions line and had to win the ball.

It went out to James O'Connor and this time he let his nifty feet do the talking as he swirled past Jonathan Sexton, Sean O'Brien and Mike Phillips to score.

Some of the first half darkness had lifted. Leali'ifano's conversion left the Wallabies only nine points adrift and asking questions of the Lions' stamina and conviction.

Their lead was cut again by two penalties from the ice-cool Leali'ifano soon after the break as the Lions infringed at ruck, maul and breakdown.

Their redress came once again through their scrum which bunted the Wallabies back and allowed Halfpenny to claim his sixth penalty before Sexton tried a little bit of adventure, chipping out of his 22. It nearly worked but Sexton was in for the Lions second try when Jonathan Davies, a controversial pick ahead of Brian O'Driscoll, edged into a gap and offloaded perfectly, after a TMO check, to the Irish five eighths.

As the final quarter began, the Wallabies needed two converted tries to claim the series. That deficit might have clouded their judgment when they tapped a penalty from 5m and the Lions cleared.

Halfpenny made them pay even more. He gassed them, made a break and offloaded for North to score before massive centre Jamie Roberts completed the try-scoring avalance and the victory.

- NZ Herald

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