Be honest, you’ve forgotten about #BOD. Or most of you have, or at least forgiven Gatland, bless’im. No Alternative (as I’m sure some vitriolic nutter might have said) following the emphatic victory by his overpoweringly big-hearted posse and given the obvious, visible, communal(?) pride and unity that made that possible. Even Keith Wood, who spoke so eloquently against his fellow member of the Hooker’s Union decision to turn away from the ‘clarion call’, must surely have recognised that within the essence of the Gatland Lions was indeed a recognition of that soul-brotherly specialness he thought had gone walkabout. Ultimately, the series victory genuinely felt like both a fabulous result and a vindication of the Lions Project; consequently Gatland emerges with enormous credit. On reflection it may have been okay to criticise his selection but not his integrity or understanding of what this marvellous touring phenomenon is all about. So Keith was probably wrong.
Probably with buts. Certainly he was right to defend – from an informed perspective – this Lions Brotherhood thing, the handshakes across the border being at the philosophical core of what makes these four year solidarity-binges remarkable. But some of us never doubted Gatland’s commitment to those finer points of Lionhood. We rated the Kiwi at the helm somewhat higher than that. We thought the de-selection of a relatively colourless (but magnificent) Irishman made absolute sense both in terms of the accommodation of the exquisite hands of Davies and of the Doctor of Wallop – Roberts. There would be no tawdry or terminal devaluing of the Lions associated with this; BOD – simply – had looked relatively ineffectual and though Davies had also been peripheral in the previous test he has looked pretty damn delicious often enough on this tour.
These decisions are even now, in the age of warm-up coaches for the warm-up coaches, built on a right dodgy cocktail of imprecise and maybe slightly more precise science. Stats and hunches. It would have been fascinating to hear what was said at the final selection meeting – not just on the BOD call but maybe particularly on the back row unit issue. Facile to immediately plump for the ‘Twas all right ‘cos it worked‘ view of this after the event, even though plainly there was a general gelling of previously disparate herculean effort(s) which meant the Lions simply would not lose. And perhaps one of the great joys of this and indeed many other sporting triumphs is that midst the passion and the punditry and the all-consuming hooha we simply cannot measure the degree to which the contest was decided by will alone. We can, however, recognise and maybe identify with something in that undeniability our lot brought to the arena. Whatever – returning to Davies-BOD – that ‘crunch call’ cannot possibly be called out as a clanger; not now.
And so to the match, in which the Lions did produce something close to a complete performance; not flawless, of course, but thrillingly, heart-liftingly complete. Adam Jones shunted himself ever closer to the top of the Knighthood shortlist, while Corbisiero thundered and generally stole the limelight. Crucially, Sexton flowered in the moment – contradicting my own most personal fear – and Halfpenny hoofed the alleged existence of pressure itself into Row 26, whilst cruising at a level of sturdy brilliance that somehow both underpinned and did that icing thing simultaneously over the entire, historically-significant cake. But what felt most remarkable was the full-court bigness and fullness of the Lions effort – something that simply could not have been expressed without a belief, a togetherness driven by the coaching staff.
A coach is in dreamland if everybody turns up and really plays. Though the match – particularly either side of the half – shifted and shimmied in terms of ascendancy, the nub of it was simply that Team Lions really worked. All of it.
From the outset there was forward domination of a sort that had (I can tell you) full-bellied fifty year-old men of a squat, squarish dimension roaring their approval. Rarely has my (cricket) club been filled with so many blokes conversant with the leeches-for-lugs branch of sports medicine. Scrums broiled, breakdowns biffed and hoiked and everywhere there was a Lion rising to the challenge. O’Brien, predictably, was troubling both the Blanketoverthepitch and the Manpossesed-ometers. Faletau rumbled and cut in his own, marginally less abrasive way… and then The Girls… The Girls cut loose, finally, emphatically. Looking back on it now, the running away with it thing towards the end was surely the inevitable result of every manjack pouring themselves so completely into the game earlier. And why did they do this? Because they knew (and Gatland, their leader and chief source of inspiration knew) what it means to be a Lion. That much was clear – and that alone is an effective validation of what Gatland did.
I have favourite moments; Davies drawing and passing with such composure and timing to release the outside backs; oozing, just ooooozzing class. Halfpenny breaking… and covering… and being everywhere and being, beyond question a somehow Roman Soldier-like Man of the Series. (Quietly proud and unflinching and oh yeah – that helmet maybe?) Corbisiero roaring – that word again! – having rolled and plonked that pill down in the first fookin’ minute, whilst we swore passionately, almost violently tribally-ecstatically at the telly. Adam Jones beasting most of Australia.
Perhaps most wonderful sight was the sharing and the celebration – all that hugging and slapping – that began so ludicrously early, like almost TEN MINUTES before the end of the game! The Series Decider might really have wafted into anti-climax had the Lions not gone into auto-execute on the Go Wide, Get Happy and Generally Blossom front. Tiredness admittedly by now offered some space and this combined with that precious flush of confidence meant tries came. Murray enjoyed his cameo, Sexton and Roberts cashed in. And The Lions, The Lions really did win.
A final thought; they won without Warburton and without O’Connell.