John Taylor Column
Lions must lick their wounds
July 1, 2013
"The side that played the only bit of really positive rugby during the whole game deservedly won." © Getty Images
Statistics do not always tell the full story but as far as the Lions are concerned the facts and figures from the second Test are pretty convincing even if they do not make pretty reading.
The Wallabies had almost twice the territorial advantage and possession. They carried the ball 136 times to the Lions 66, made 150 passes compared to 70 and overall, completed a massive 459 metres running compared to 140.
The Lions did beat them in one area - despite that disparity in possession they kicked 22 times from hand compared to 18 but made no line breaks in the whole game (the Wallabies made four) which is a pretty damning indictment of the way they played.
Much of the kicking was actually pretty accurate and put the catchers under pressure but with a number of ex-League and Aussie Rules players in the backs they were easily dealt with - all the ball spilling came from passing errors.
At least Jonny Sexton, one of the chief culprits, was honest enough to admit afterwards that the Lions played poorly. 'At times it felt like we were wishing the game to finish, he said, 'we were not going after it.' I have to agree.
Because the Wallabies made so many handling errors there was a slightly surreal feel about the game. They were dominating possession and territory but when Leigh Halfpenny's fifth penalty made it 15-9 you felt the Lions might scrape home because mistakes meant Australia were not really putting them under any pressure and they had not really threatened the line.
Sam Warburton had been doing a magnificent job at the breakdown, cutting off any threat at source and Halfpenny's great kicking had kept the Lions' noses in front. Three of those kicks were from very long range and the two he missed were on target but short from over 50 metres so it was not as if the Lions were actually putting the Wallabies under huge pressure.
With referee, Craig Joubert, at his intolerant worst, penalising at scrum-time whenever possible, it really looked as if it might continue in the same vein until James Horwill made that huge call to go for broke instead of taking the three points on offer with 10 minutes still on the clock. All credit to him - it paid off handsomely and the side that played the only bit of really positive rugby during the whole game deservedly won.
Somehow the Lions looked to have lost all their threat so where do they go from here? History tells us that it is hugely difficult to win the final Test and it has only ever happened once to win a series - here in Australia in 1989 - but the lessons learned on the last tour, to South Africa in 2009, might be worth taking on board.
After a brutal second Test the Lions felt very aggrieved. They had lost the series and some key players when they felt the very least they deserved was to be one down with one to play. They could have licked their wounds and used that as an excuse but instead used the sense of injustice to fuel a new spirit that carried them to a famous 28-9 victory as they scored three tries with a brand new side.
So, Warren Gatland has an interesting dilemma. Does he stick with his original selections where possible or does he deliberately go for some new blood, hoping that the fresh legs and chance to make history will inspire a great performance?
Mako Vunipola was the man Joubert blamed for the scrum instability early on and, in contrast to the first Test, the Lions seldom had any real advantage so the return of Alex Corbisiero, if fit, is a given but there is not much room for manoeuvre in the second-row so I see little change in the front five.
The back-row is a different matter. With Warburton out I would definitely go for Justin Tipuric as his replacement. Jamie Heaslip has not been the force I expected so I would also give Toby Faletau a chance. He has carried selflessly and powerfully in every match and might just come up with that huge performance that could make the difference.
Scrum-half is another area where he could gamble. Mike Phillips, in the mood he was against England back in March, is probably the only scrum-half who can shackle Will Genia - but his mood is everything.
If he is fit I expect Jamie Roberts to line-up alongside Brian O'Driscoll at centre with the Irishman captaining the Lions on his final appearance. The alternative is to go for the most powerful centre combination possible and use Manu Tuilagi as a wrecking ball to break down the Australian mid-field. Jonathan Davies has been a terrific workhorse on this trip and deserves a rest. The back three will probably stay the same.
The one thing former captains such as O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell plus a few of the senior Welsh players would like on their CV before retirement is to be part of a winning Lions tour. Win on Saturday and they join the legends of 1971, 1974, 1989 and 1997, lose and they go down as Lions failures.
Lions prop Mako Vunipola reacts to a decision during his side's defeat in Melbourne © 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