Gatland gambles and wins
July 7, 2013
Job done: Lions coach Warren Gatland and captain Sam Warburton face the media following their historic series triumph © Getty Images
Well played Warren Gatland! Taking the players off to Noosa for a little rest and recreation to recharge the batteries and a total revamping of the team for the third Test including - shock horror - the dropping of Brian O'Driscoll certainly upset a few former Lions' grandees and if the Lions had failed he would now be a very lonely figure.
But he gambled and won. It was a brave call, especially dropping O'Driscoll (I have to say I would have had him as my captain on the day) and everything depended on the new blood, the players who felt they had something to prove, bringing an extra edge and playing with total conviction. They delivered in spades.
Of course everything went right for them early on but the belief they showed in the second half and the fact they scored four tries and became the first Lions to score 40 points in a Test was a revelation after the lack of attacking threat in Melbourne.
Sir Clive Woodward predictably criticised the Noosa trip on sports science grounds. I am sure you are right Clive, it probably set the recovery back by 24 hours, but sometimes the other sort of player welfare - the feel-good factor, reminding everybody that you are a band of brothers on a mission and the bonding that is a unique challenge on a Lions Tour, needs to take precedence and it obviously worked.
Willie John McBride, the greatest Lion of them all, was apparently shocked at the selection of 10 Welshmen and was reported out here as saying it betrayed and undermined the whole ethos of the Lions. I am surprised. You forget which country you come from as soon as you are on the trip and become a Lion. Forging that totally new identity is the first thing the coach and manager have to achieve. After touring with him twice I thought Willie John understood that better than anybody.
Fortunately, O'Driscoll, the ultimate professional, did understand. He was 'gutted' as he tweeted but being the great team man he is he got behind the selected squad and gave the guys his total support. Gatland decided to blow the Wallabies away with sheer power and succeeded, great call.
O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell have both contributed hugely to this tour and, as I wrote last week, once the dust has settled they will be thrilled to have a winning Lions Tour on their already impressive CVs.
There were two big differences from the first Test. They were always expected to have a significant advantage in the scrums and they finally managed to keep the pressure on to such an extent it proved conclusive. They also took their chances with ruthless efficiency - once they were through the first line of defence the Wallabies were made to pay.
It was the perfect start. No forward wanted to take responsibility for taking the kick-off - Kane Douglas, reluctantly went for it then changed his mind - and the normally immaculate Will Genia knocked on - a horrible error playing straight to the Lions' strong suit. Their scrum powered forward and with just 1minute 20 seconds gone they were in the lead.
I was listening to the referee and it was soon obvious the Wallabies were in serious scrum trouble. He kept warning Benn Robinson and after a massive shove that shunted them off their own ball for Leigh Halfpenny's third penalty he lectured James Horwill and the unfortunate prop saying he would be forced to act. Ironically, it was the tight-head, Ben Alexander, who went down at the next scrum but Mr Poite had had enough and binned him instead. Significantly he never re-appeared.
All credit to the Wallabies - they dug in and got themselves back into the match but 10 minutes into the second half another massive scrum gave Halfpenny his fifth penalty and, soon after, Jonny Sexton's try killed them off.
The three second-half tries were all beautifully constructed and executed which just emphasised how much the Lions had lost their way in Melbourne.
This always looked a strong Lions squad and eventually it was that strength in depth that proved decisive. In the end only a handful of the original selections failed to figure in the Tests and competition for places kept everybody on their toes.
In the final Test the new back-row played a pivotal part, stand-in captain Alun Wyn Jones (who has played his best rugby ever here in Oz) was inspirational, and R n' R at Noosa obviously worked for Jonathan Davies who was back to his best in tandem with Jamie Roberts. Alex Corbisiero (third choice loose-head) played a vital role and Halfpenny and George North added the sort of attack capability that even had the most one-eyed League devotees down here singing their praises.
The series victory has also silenced those who believed the future of Lions' Tours was perhaps in jeopardy because there had been no victory since 1997. There was never any need to worry. The players love the challenge just as much as we did in the amateur days and the host nations love the revenue so I am confident they will be a part of the international rugby scene for many years to come. Roll-on New Zealand in 2017.
Lions captain Sam Warburton parades the Tom Richard Cup in Sydney © Getty Images
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John Taylor is a former Wales international who toured with the British & Irish Lions in 1968 and 1971. Since retiring he has worked in the media and has covered the last eight Lions tours as a commentator or journalist