The British and Irish Lions ended their 16-year wait for a rugby series win with a record 41-16 rout of Australia, rebounding from a week of setbacks to outscore the Wallabies by four tries to one.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny kicked a Lions-record 21 points and set up two tries at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium last night as the combined team amassed their biggest points tally in 108 Tests on the back of a three-try burst in 10 second-half minutes. Australia trailed 19-3 before pulling within three points.
“We came under pressure and the boys kept their composure and finished really strong,” Lions head coach Warren Gatland said in a news conference. “We spoke about being prepared to go to a place that not many players go to in terms of being able to push your body to the limit. The players did that, they ran themselves into the ground. It was an outstanding performance.”
The Lions rebounded from a one-point defeat in the second Test, the loss of captain Sam Warburton through injury and the surprise omission of Brian O’Driscoll, their most-experienced player, by dominating the Wallabies in the scrums to build a platform for their first Test series win since a 2-1 triumph in South Africa in 1997.
Man-of-the-match Halfpenny, one of 10 Welshmen in the starting lineup, was successful with eight of his nine attempts at goal to finish the series with a Lions-record 49 points, moving him eight past the previous mark held by Neil Jenkins, his current kicking coach.
“Growing up watching Lions tours I’d always dream that I could be part of it,” Halfpenny, who was also named as the player of the series, told reporters. “To be part of a winning Lions tour is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”
‘Agony and Ecstasy’
The Lions, who tour every four years with their destination rotating between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, got their tries through England prop Alex Corbisiero, Irish fly-half Jonathan Sexton and Welsh pair George North and Jamie Roberts. The crowd of 83,702 included James Bond actor Daniel Craig, who joined the Lions in the locker room after the game to celebrate.
“You have to enjoy those moments,” Gatland added. “The thing with Test rugby is that there’s nothing in between agony and ecstasy. When you get the ecstasy you have to enjoy that moment. Emotionally they have put so much into it.”
Fly-half James O’Connor scored a try and Christian Leali’ifano kicked 11 points for the third-ranked Wallabies, who rallied for a 2-1 win when the teams met 12 years ago. Australia sent the contest into a deciding match with a 16-15 victory in Melbourne after the Lions won 23-21 in Brisbane last month.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow because we didn’t put our best out there,” said Australia captain James Horwill. “After two games that were very close, it is disappointing we had a final scoreline that looked like it did.”
Australia scrum-half Will Genia knocked on Sexton’s kick-off to give the tourists a scrum platform that produced the first in a series of free-kicks and penalties. Within eight minutes, the Lions were 10-0 up through Corbisiero’s converted try and a Halfpenny penalty.
Wallabies flanker George Smith went off 4 1/2 minutes into his first appearance in international rugby for nearly four years following a clash of heads with Lions hooker Richard Hibbard. He returned to the field about five minutes later after passing concussion tests, by which time Leali’ifano booted the Wallabies’ first points.
Halfpenny then sent over two kicks in succession, including one from the halfway line, to put the Lions 16-3 ahead with 16 minutes gone.
The home team was reduced to 14 men in the 24th minute when prop Ben Alexander was sin-binned by French referee Romain Poite for repeated infringements at the scrum. Halfpenny kicked the resultant penalty to put the Lions 16 points clear and Sexton sent a drop-goal attempt just wide after the Lions took the ball through 27 phases of play.
The Wallabies secured consistent possession toward the end of the half and won a scrum near the Lions try line. After two resets, O’Connor got the ball and stepped through two defenders after the halftime siren to touch down near the posts. Leali’ifano converted to make it 19-10 at the break.
Australia carried the momentum into the second half by winning two penalties that Leali’ifano kicked to make it 19-16, giving the Wallabies 13 points from a six-minute span either side of the break. The Lions’ dominance in the scrum yielded a third penalty in the 52nd minute and Halfpenny made it 22-16.
Five minutes later, Halfpenny offloaded in a tackle to send Sexton over for the Lions’ second try following a midfield break from Jonathan Davies. The try was awarded after a review for a forward pass by the television match official.
With 16 minutes to go, Halfpenny counterattacked from Genia’s kick downfield and put North clear for a try.
Roberts, who missed the first two matches because of a hamstring injury, crashed through the Wallabies defense with about 13 minutes remaining for the fourth try. Halfpenny added the extras to close the scoring and pass the previous best Test-haul of 20 points by a Lions player shared by Jonny Wilkinson and Stephen Jones.
“I think he’s established himself as pretty iconic in the game now and he’s been a talisman throughout the tour,” Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones, who captained the Lions last night, said of Halfpenny. “Any plaudits he gets are more than well deserved.”