That’s All Folks! (until later)

It’s been a long and exhausting season, and we’re looking forward to a break. While the drama has been constant, the rugby has been largely lacking – Ireland’s most memorable display was half their opening Six Nations game against Wales, as well as a romp against a disinterested Argentina, the best game at provincial level was Munster’s HEC semi-final against Clermont, and the Lions ultimately prevailed in a low-quality series.

At national level, it’s the end of an era – Declan Kidney started by delivering a Grand Slam (only the second ever), but followed that by progressive degeneration which ended in the shambolic capitulation in Rome. Deccie’s struggles to assimilate newer players and a more modern gameplan as the heroes of 09 departed one by one ultimately brought him down. Next year will be the start of the Messiah Joe Schmidt’s reign – the cuddly Kiwi is unlikely to make any massive changes in personnel, but a coherent gameplan for the first time in years will be a huge relief.  Kidney’s management of the team was a constant source of articles and opinion, and we look forward to critiquing the new man in the job and seeing if he can improve matters – Ireland are at their lowest ebb since the Five Nations became Six so here’s hoping.

For the provinces, the story of the year has been Rob Penney and Munster. After years of limping out of Europe with their tail between their legs, Munster harked back to their great tradition with memorable wins against Sarries and Quins then a heroic defeat against a petrified Clermont team.  Penney deserves huge credit for his work, but replacing Rog and the perennial Keet Earls question will be keeping him awake, and the jury’s still out on this one.  Were the knockout performances emotionally driven unsustainable peaks or the start of Penney’s vision for Munster crystallising?  We shall see.

Given the lamentable choking that Clermont displayed at the end of the HEC, Leinster will regret the insipid performance in the Aviva in December which killed their three-in-a-row hopes. The Amlin and (especially) the Pro12 will be of consolation, but the departure of their best player and question marks over the front five mean some consolidation is likely. The young guns at Ulster progressed at home, but inconsistency in Europe cost them a home quarter-final. They’ll need to make better use of their forward power next year – it’s no use having all these great backs outside if you box-kick everything.

In the West, it’s the Pat Lam story from next year, but Eric Elwood has left the province much stronger than he got them – mid-table battlers in the Pro12 and HEC experience gives a really solid platform for growth. Now, what about that dog track?

The season finished with the uber-full on Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions tour – the team came home immortal victorious, largely thanks to Alex Corbisiero and Dingo Deans’ selection policy. No-one enjoyed the rugby too much (unless you were from Wales) but a first series victory in 16 years shouldn’t be sniffed at. Besides, if they couldn’t beat that shower, who were they going to beat?

Finally, thanks to all who came on here to read the blog, and especially to those who joined the debate below the line in the comment box and on Twitter.  The blog would be nothing without its readers, and this year the comment box really exploded, which is really great.  More so than ever, the comments add so much to the pieces we write, and made for some really great reading this year.  Even occasionally from Leisterlion.  Ah, we love you really Leinsterlion.  Never change.  Never.

We’ll return in a few weeks, tanned and refreshed with some look-forward pieces, and we’ll hopefully be less bitter.

Palla & Egg

Ostrich Deans

True story #1: two Wallabies players missed the team bus to training before the third Test and followed in a taxi. When asked to apologise to their teammates, one said “I’m sorry I didn’t order room service”. The coach did nothing, much to the dismay of the rest of the squad. We’ll reveal who the two players were at the end.

True story #2: it’s been reported that the ARU had decided to dispense with Dingo’s services before the Lions series even started – Deans was officially unaware of this, but its hard not to see him connecting the dots, particularly with Ewen McKenzie and Jake White treating him as a dead duck in public

Post the firing of Deans, the Wallaby camp is beginning to wash its dirty laundry in public, and it ain’t pretty. We previously opined that if the Lions couldn’t beat an Australia team begging to be beaten, who would they beat, but now we can ask an even stronger question – how did the Lions come so close to losing the series to a team with a lame duck coach, low morale and self-destructing superstars?

Understandably enough, it was Gatty’s selections that inspired the bigger debate in these parts, particularly because of the you-know-who decision, and the madcap preference for Tom Croft and Dan Lydiate as ball carriers ahead of Sean O’Brien. Whatever you think about the beefy Kiwi’s picks, at least they won the series, no matter the fortune involved. On the other side of the fence, Dingo Deans made some massive calls of his own, and they were largely catastrophic.

When one looks back on the Test series, the obvious reason why Australia didn’t win was their failure to made productive use of good primary possession. In the first two tests, they owned the scrum, lineout and football, yet lost by one point. When the Lions got on top, they won the final test by 25 points. And this all when Australia had the best scrumhalf (and player) on view, while the Lions hummed and hawed and placated an obviously unfit Mike Philips. Only with Conor Murray on did they look even reasonably effective.

While we aren’t buying the standard Sky winger-playing-at-ten line (he has plenty of experience at ten in Super Rugby), putting his eggs in the James O’Connor basket was a series-defining and disastrous decision by Deans. While O’Connor improved as the series went on, and showed occasional flickers of his talent, he never looked able to get his backline moving – any of the exiled Quade Cooper, an out-of-sorts Kurtley Beale or even Christian Leali’ifano would have been a better option. Indeed, having seen how Cooper filleted the Lions even when behind a beaten pack in Suncorp earlier in the tour, it is probable the Sydney test would have been a dead rubber with him in the side.

In the second test, Michael Hooper played a blinder, and became especially prominent with Sam Warburton gone – Deans repaid this performance by dropping him for the heroic George Smith. While the recall of Smith was a great story, dropping Hooper (and Liam Gill) wasn’t very smart, and his explanation to Gill (“You can talk abvout loyalty when you have 100 caps”) wasn’t very conducive to squad harmony. In the event, Smith was quite clearly reeling from a blow to the head early on and trundled around Sydney seemingly unaware of where he was.

To his credit, Ben Mowen is a massive find, one of the players of the series who looks likely to be a key Wallaby leader for the coming years, and Christian Leali’ifano is the kind of dead-eyed goal-kicker Australia have lacked for many years.

In many ways, Deans was on a hiding to nothing having fallen out with his best player and alienated the Wallaby fan base (such as it is) – and we now know he wouldn’t have got a new contract anyway – but not taking the chances offered up by an average Lions outfit over a three test series, having stuck your stall out was pretty unforgivable.

We’re likely to see quite a few changes in the Wallaby side in the run up to RWC15. McKenzie made a point of insisting all players would be forced to make the team bus on time. It’s probable the tiresome twins will see a sabbatical from Wallaby duty for some time until they get their heads in gear. Cooper and Matt Toomua will contest the 10 shirt in their absence and that of Berrick Barnes, who, along with Digby Ioane, is probably heading north. Henry Speight will be Wallaby-eligible at year end, and from him, Jesse Mogg, Israel Folau (presuming  he stays in union) and the Honey Badger, the Wallabies will pick a fresh-looking back three. Which makes Will Genia, Lilo and AAC the only constants in the backline.

In the pack, there is lots of talk Ben Alexander won’t be seen again, with James Slipper and Sekope Kepu contesting for the long-time Wallaby weakness at tighthead prop. Scott Sia and Siliva Siliva are the future at 1 and 2 respectively – expect to see them tour in November, as backup to Stephen Moore and Benn Robinson.

Another problem position is number 8, where Cliffy Palu had an anonymous series – in the absence of Scott Higginbotham, the only other options are moving Ben Mowen back or promoting Jake Schatz. A partner for James Horwill is needed in the second row as well, where Kane Douglas was fairly ineffective.

In the rush to thump chests and talk about 16 years of hurt ended, Northern Hemisphere rugby needs to recognise the Lions struggled for five-sixths of the Test series against a shambolic Wallaby team low on morale, that didn’t like its coach and had no recognisable gameplan – this was the weakest opponent the Lions faced in many many years. The likely improvement from here until RWC15 shouldn’t convince anyone that the Wallaby team they defeated wasn’t one that the New Zealanders or South Africans (or French, possibly) wouldn’t have swatted aside with ease.

The test series was thoroughly enjoyable for the drama and selection banter involved, but lets not kid ourselves about its quality. The more one hears about the Wallaby camp this summer, the less of a historical (immortal!) achievement the series victory looks – but hey, they happen rarely enough, let’s try and savour it. As long as we also try and learn something from it.

Postscript: if you haven’t worked out who the players are, go off and write 200 lines: “Willie John McBride owes me an apology”, then in no less than 10,000 words write a fair and balanced appraisal of Warren Gatland. End it: Love from Stephen.

Mea Culpa (ish)

Ok, ok, we were wrong. Gatty was right. All previous criticism was undeserved. It’s about time Willie John McBride apologised to him. Etc etc.  For all the talk of the backrow and the centre selection, the most important man on the pitch was the drafted-in loosehead Alex Corbisiero.  Take a bow Corbs, you go home a hero.  But to give Gatland his dues, he got the series win he set out for.  We many never be lovers of Warrenball, but on this occasion, it was good enough to beat an ordinary Australia and for the Lions to a first series in 16 years.  Whatever you say about Gatland, his teams have a habit of winning test matches.

The beefy pack and potent carriers selected for the third and final test by big Wazza did the job – establishing dominance in the set piece and being able to bash over the gainline at will can be a useful combination (who knew?!). Without a platform, and with an ineffective outhalf, the Wallabies couldn’t come back from a horrible start and fell to pieces in the final quarter.

It was great to see the Lions finally playing some rugger, so our dread at the prospect of horrorball winning the series thankfully didn’t transpire, so credit to Gatland – he has done what he came to do.

What is most strange about the whole thing, particularly in light of all the macho posturing about the Wallaby forwards in the build-up to the series, was that it took him three tests to target them – the light and leggy lineout team of the first test followed by the tacklers of the second played into the Wallabies’ hands. Only the instransignce of Dingo Deans refusal to pick Quade Cooper, followed by the unfortunate earlier injury to goal-kicker Christian Leali’ifano in Brisbane ultimately saw the Lions through.

Gatland in fact got plenty wrong on the tour, almost never getting his best team on the pitch.  Even in the triumphant final test, the first 50 minutes was marred by Mike Phillips’ lethargic passing.  It was only when Conor Murray came on that the backline finally got moving.  And whoever knows how Sean O’Brien was entirely left ouf of the matchday squad for the first test.

Helpfully, Australia were also poorly set up.  The failure to find a means to get Quade Cooper on the pitch has proved a grand folly, and the curious dropping of Michael Hooper for the final test never looked a smart call.

Just as odd is the difficulty in identifying Lions who had a really great tour. Unlike in 2009, when the plane was littered with Immortals (Sky alert), only Alun-Wyn Jones, Adam Jones, Alex Corbisiero and Leigh Halfpenny could conclusively be said to have had truly great tours. There were lots of injuries and mis-selections, a number of others played in fits and starts.  Don’t forget the Lions looked a rabble for the first two tests.

The final game made it into Stephen Jones’ top five ‘greatest Lions days’, a list any day would aspire to get into, but in truth this wasn’t an especially memorable tour.  One suspects from the outside that the players probably enjoyed Geech’s happy-clappy 2009 tour of South Afric more – that team played a better brand of rugby, and played a huge part in a decade-best match in the second test.  But this tour had to be won, and they won it.  Had they lost it, they’d be staring down the barrel of New Zealand in four years and a near-certain five series defeats on the trot.  The whole concept of the Lions would be called into question.  Gatland has effectively bought the Lions a future.

He has got the job done, and, will be able to go back to his job at Wales with most of his players still happy with him – his two immediate goals from the Lions tour. The third goal, the longer one, would have been that he gave a credible audition for the BNZ job, but it’s hard to see anyone from the NZRFU being impressed by unsure selection, Warrenball and a bizarre desire to not press home an obvious advantage over the opposition. Beside all that, the Wallabies are considered easy meat in New Zealand, and coming close to losing won’t look good.

It’s been an odd series, that’s for sure. Tense and competitive, but rarely all that high quality. The Lions come home immortal (does that apply to Brian O’Driscoll I wonder), and the Wallabies proceed to tear each other to shreds – Deans has been fired, and James O’Connor is heading towards scapegoat-ville for his perceived off-field slack attitude. The Australians were wonderful hosts in every way – bringing great beaches for topless photo-shoots, competitive pre-test games, and doing their utmost to ignominiously lose the series – finally succeeding in Sydney.

The deep worry was that if the Lions couldn’t win this series, what could they win, but thankfully the 16-year clock has been reset. This tour certainly won’t have as good a highlight series as 1997 (or 2001, or 2009) but it’s a winning one, and, ultimately, that’s what matters.

The Internal Struggle

There was OUTRAGE of the highest order yesterday, after Gatty unceremoniously dumped you-know-who ahead of the you-know-what on Saturday. The OUTRAGE bubbled and boiled at the injustice of dropping that-bloke-called-Brian and more than a few Irish fans declared themselves Wallaby fans ahead of Saturday.

And no doubt they are serious. Personally, we would find it pretty hard to cheer against any representative team containing Johnny Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Tommy Bowe (unless they all signed for Saracens), but it’s a very understandable emotion. We’ve talked before about how many fans feel they don’t really have a stake in the Lions and how it’s tough to really buy into the team, so it’s quite obvious how disappointment can breed resentment.  It’s easy to talk about getting behind the Lions and how there are no nationalities, just 15 Lions (though this is easier said when the team is full of your own national heroes!), but deep down, it doesn’t really work that way for anyone.  At the end of the day, folk have an affinity with the players they adore for their club/province and nation.  There’s no instinctive reason to feel emotionally attached to a mainly Welsh team playing such reductive rugby – unless you’re Welsh, or really enjoy negative rugby.  The great binding force of the Lions crest can only get one so far, particularly when it has become so wearisomely rammed down supporters’ throats by the Sky machine.

While it’s difficult to completely disentangle one’s emotions after the whole BOD affair, it’s not so much the OUTRAGE over the dropping of Ireland’s national icon that is so deflating, but the message it sends out about the identity of this Lions touring squad.  It’s a sad indictment of this Lions coaching team when the most skilful players – Brian O’Driscoll and Justin Tipuric – are passed over for bigger chaps who can bosh harder.  Is this really the best the Lions can do?  I thought this was the pinnacle of the game, or something.

While we’ll be cheering for the Lions on saturday, there is a goodly portion of our being that feel the best result for all concerned is an Australia win.  This Lions squad simply doesn’t deserve to win the series (barring a sudden about-turn in performance and approach entirely out of keeping with the selection and the first two tests).  Sky will tell you that ‘immortality’ beckons for the winners, but does it really?  Immortality, for scraping out two wins (one of which was undeserved) against a misfiring Australia?  In what has been a lamentably poor quality series thus far, the Aussies have been the better side in all facets of the game, have shown occasional invention, been brave (foolhardy?) in selection (three debutants and a rookie outhalf for Brisbane), have at least two bona fide geniuses in their team and, crucially, have played all the rugby on offer (such as it has been).  They are far from a great team, and frequently go backwards in their attempts to attack, but at least they’ve tried to play with the ball.

This Lions team and squad is supposed to be the best the Northern Hemisphere (well, the old public school English-speaking Northern Hemisphere) has to offer – and they haven’t covered their Hemipshere (go Northern Hemisphere!) in glory. They have bished, bashed, shunted, huffed, puffed and boshed (in the Tests) – which should have been expected, to be frank.

This years Six Nations was an utter abomination. It started and ended brilliantly, involving the best and worst of the Welsh, but in between, plumbed the depths – the Wales-France game was simply appalling and England and Ireland got more and more dismal as the tournament progressed. And the domestic competitions weren’t much better – the Heineken Cup was dominated by the French, and won by a bosh-and-bullet bunch of mercenaries whose only try in the knock-out stages involved Europe’s most dislikeable player. Ulster and Leinster served up a decent Pro12 final that befitted a rejuvenated competition, but only Leicester Tigers really got the pulses racing.  When you’re relying on the Tigers for attacking rugby, well…

The Lions are essentially composed of Leicester and Leinster players bolted onto the (Six Nations winning) Wales squad – and it’s been grim to watch. If the Lions do manage to win in Sydney, it will be a disaster for Northern Hemisphere rugby – a Neanderthal gameplan that prizes brawn over brain will have prevailed and will doubtless become orthodoxy all the way to RWC15. At least Ireland can rely on Joe Schmidt to buck the trend, but on the squidgy February pitches even he will be up against it.  Where are the skills? Where is the daring? I’m sure we aren’t alone in thinking players don’t need to be from below the equator to be able to play an enterprising and watchable brand of rugby, while retaining enough forward power to get the Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeave going.  Fancy the Lions Tour commemorative DVD under your Christmas tree?  No thanks.  But… Immortality!

Ultimately, wouldn’t it be better to come home in a welter of hand-wringing, wondering why the best that four Nations has to offer couldn’t beat a Wallaby team that was begging, begging, to be beaten. There’s something unsettling about the thought of Gatland being vindicated having presided over such a dispiritingly awful series and after his grandstanding in dropping Brian O’Driscoll.  In Sydney, we’ll be hoping the Lions come out, and contrary to all the pre-match signifiers, give it a good lash, play some decent stuff, show well (all of them, not just the Irish), contribute to a great game of rugby and thrash the Aussies by four tries to one.  But if they set their stall out to grind and bosh their way to a win, there will be a considerable dose of schadenfreude in Cordite Towers if they get what they deserve, which is to lose.

Post-script: re the OUTRAGE – have we really gone for the ‘Justice for BOD’ line? Justice? Really? Too strong? Maybe we should ask the Egyptian public their thoughts on this ‘injustice’?

Numero Uno, and Triskaidekaphobia

There is one story today – Gatty. Brian O’Driscoll is mere collateral damage – Gatty has picked the team he wanted for the biggest game of his career. About the team, more anon, but let’s just consider something for a second.

When rumours were flying that Gatty was going to be offered the big gig, the WRU were aghast – in 2001, the Liiiiiiiiiiiiions took their coach, and he returned a lame duck, shelled by his players who thought they didn’t get a fair crack. This time, it was agreed Gatty would take the winter off Wales to concentrate on watching Saracens (we can only assume, judging by the gameplan). But what is unavoidable is this – Gatty will be Wales coach on Sunday morning. Even if he genuinely thought his best team contained only a handful of Welshmen, can you really see him picking it, given he’ll be in charge of the same men next week?

He has to balance those two facts for this team – if he picks a shed-load of Welshmen and loses, his day job is actually easier than dropping them all and winning. It’s an uncomfortable truth, and it’s not all Gatty’s fault. The Liiiiiiiiiions took the plunge on a coach of one of the constituent nations, and it looks like it might backfire. In fact, even if they win, what damage is done to the Lions “concept” (Sky alert) by so nakedly favouring “your boys”? It’s an interesting question.

Last week we felt the team showed a refreshing lack of Welsh bias, but this week’s side is almost trying to write that abberation of a performance out of history.  ‘This is the team I’ve wanted to play’, Gatty apears to be saying, ‘and injuries to my key men have stopped me up until now’.  The hell with the breakdown, the lineout, Tom Croft, that small hooker who can run with the ball, passing in the backline – instead, let’s just try to bludgeon the opposition.

So, in fact, the selection of least resistance is this: if in doubt, Irish/English/Scottish out. But let’s talk positive first.

Given the BOD furore, the rest of the team selection has barely been noticed , but he’s injected a serious quotient of prime beef into what was an undernourished pack, and recalled Mike Phillips at scrum-half. At the risk of trying to second-guess the gameplan from the team-sheet, which has proved a fool’s errand so far, it looks more than ever that the team is set up to play Warrenball in its purest form.

The pack now has the ballast to break the gainline, and the monstrous three-quarter line is now finally in place as Gatland probably always wanted it.  With no fewer than ten Welsh starting, he’s gone for what he knows best, but that which has repeatedly – and if we hear about how close the games were one more time… – come up short against Australia, no fewer than six times in the last 18 months.  They’re going to try and run the bus over Australia – problem being Australia have quite a few nippy mopeds and sports car who could sidestep a bus blindfolded.

The decision to drop BOD will turn out to be a sentiment-ignoring masterstroke which won the Lions a first series in 16 years, or a stick with which Gatland will be beaten till kingdom come should the Lions lose.  As Irish supporters, the temptation is to call Gatland a pr*ck, adopt a ‘how dare he’ attitude, and start ironing your Wallaby shirt in protest.  But even trying to look at it with cold, hard eyes (we’re doing our best here, people, but it ain’s easy), this looks an exceptionally risky call.

Before the series, we hoped that Gatland’s plan would be to augment his straight-running Welsh backline with the subtlety that Sexton and O’Driscoll would bring to proceedings, and that their creativity and passing skills would make the difference.  So far, that has not come to be, as the backline has been stifled by a negative kick-heavy gameplan and lack of go-forward ball from the pack, and a struggling setpiece. It’s well and good arguing that the team is picked for a specific gameplan, as opposed to getting his Welsh chaps on the field, but the point is moot – it’s the Welsh gameplan, ergo he picks the Welsh players.  No room for creativity here.  That O’Driscoll should be the fall guy is extraordinary.  Davies was no less effective in his role at inside centre.  It’s worth viewing this excellent video put together by Murray Kinsella, demonstrating how the partnership has failed.  But he can bosh harder than Drico, so he’s picked.

Davies (admittedly, out of position) missed three tackles in Melbourne and the AAC try went through his real estate. On the flip side, he has played well when at 13 on tour, and it’s not his fault Gatty has picked him out of position. Still, to be selected ahead of a man who has started every Lions test he has been available for, going back 12 years, is a huge shock. It’s also heavily ironic, given it was Gatty who parachuted Drico into a game against Australia in 1999, before he’d even been capped by Leinster.

With O’Connell and Warburton already out, it also leaves the team worryingly short of leaders.  Gatland mentioned that they picked the team first and the captain second, which is fine, but in the white heat of a do-or-die deciding test, O’Driscoll’s defensive organisation and inspirational leadership would surely be invaluable. With Jamie Heaslip out as well, they have been left with precisely zero national captains in the team (whatever you make of Heaslip’s armband-wearing career to date).

The loss of those three aside, the pack looks a bit smarter this time, although Tom Youngs can be considered unlucky.  Richard Hibbard makes the cut by dint of his physique, as opposed to any particularly great rugby played on tour so far.  Toby Faletau is a good call, and for all the grunt work Heaslip has put into the first two tests, Faletau would have been unlucky to go home without featuring in the test side.  Sean O’Brien’s elevation to the team is long overdue.  The hope would have been that Gatland would go for broke, and switch the backrow wholesale, with Justin Tipuric at openside and O’Brien at 6, but it was far-fetched. It looks pretty unbalanced, and the suspicion is that Michael Hooper George Smith will be wearing a big smile today.  As much as Drico doesn’t suit the crash-bang gameplan, neither does Tipuric.  He’s the excetion that proives the rule, a Welshman who should be in the team, but isn’t.

Mike Phillips is the other fortunate starter, picked on blind faith more than anything.  Conor Murray retains his place on the bench, which is the least he deserves.  While none of the scrummies have shot the lights out, Murray has been the most accomplished over the whole series, and his newfound understanding with Jonny Sexton would have been worth exploring in the final test.  Phillips owes his coaches one for sure – particularly after the first test.

Gatty has picked a team which will delight Australia – they fear only one player in the Lions team, Sean O’Brien, and he is playing out of position to accomodate a non-carrying, non-passing tackling machine. They will be confident of winning the series, particularly if the day is dry – they haven’t had much luck so far, and it’s hard not to envisage a scenario where they get a break or two and end up ahead by double figures.

But Gatty’s team also will delight his employers – he’s looking after number one, and if the Lions win the series, great. If not, hey – the WRU and their players will be happy – which makes Gatty happy.

Postscript: the heavy doses of Lions-nostalgia have included numerous hour-long tear-soaked documentaries about the great Lions tours, the 1974 one chief among them. Every time Willie John McBride is asked about it, he is at pains to describe how, at the end of the final test, the XV went straight across to applaud the dirt-trackers – he is rightly and justifiably proud of the squad unity he presided over, and anyone from the tour insists it was a huge factor in their success. Rewind the clock back four years – the Lions, bruised and battered, went into the third test with a near-scratch side, yet played as enterprisingly as ever and took a well-deserved win home. The entire squad were overjoyed and it was clear the connection that had been made. Any thoughts on what the likes of Stuart Hogg and Drico are thinking right now?

Reductive

Ha!  What was our headline again?  ‘Get Quick Ball. Use Quick Ball. Repeat’, was it?  Joke’s on us.  ‘Hoof ball. Chase ball. Repeat’ would be more like it.  What looked, optimistially, to be a team selection to move the point of attack in fact turned out to be one sent on to the pitch to chase high balls.  It was puke rugby and the Lions deserved to lose.

Warren Gatland stands to be castigated for exceptionally reductive, negative tactics in a second test which was there for the taking against a nervous, mistake-ridden Australia.  But by relying on chasing (admittedly pretty accurate) garryowens and winning (admittedly superbly contested) turnovers on the deck, and refusing to try and play rugby with ball in hand, the Lions found themselves hoping to defend their way to victory.  Eventually the dam burst.  The Lions can point to how close they were to a series win, but the truth is that had Leali’ifano been kicking last week the series would be over.  Sure, Australia played as if they had a rifle pointed at their feet and their finger on the trigger for most of the game, intent as they were to throw the ball forward, but eventually the passes stuck, the fly-half found a running angle, and they came up with the winning score.

The most damning statistic in the ESPNscrum.com horror-show was that Johnny Sexton passed the ball ten times in the match (second most damning statistic: 15 of 20 Lions had more tackles than metres carried).  The Lions have a huge advantage at fly-half, where Europe’s finest is facing off against a player who is unfamiliar with the requirements of the position at test level. Instead of trying to press home that advantage, they have him performing a role that his deputy, the obviously inferior Owen Farrell, could easily manage.  What are they thinking?

Gatland can argue that the intention was not to reduce the gameplan to kicky-kick, and that the lack of go-forward ball presented to the halves necessitated that they adopt a conservative approach.  Fair enough, but with the team he put out, is it any wonder?  It was pretty obvious that with the backrow and centres selected, the Lions were going to struggle to get over the gainline.  Gatland could have picked any or all of Sean O’Brien, Toby Faletau or Manu Tuilagi but declined on all three counts.  The media are only too keen to paint Dr. Roberts as a panacea to all their woes, but that overlooks the fact that there were alternatives in place to compensate, and also that Roberts hasn’t really played very well at all since Hong Kong.  He’s a fine player, but doesn’t have a magic wand (he has started 5 games against Australia and lost 4) . Also, the sight of Leigh Halfpenny fielding a garryowen in some space with men outside, then promptly booting it into orbit, doesn’t quite speak to a ball-in-hand gameplan.

Similarly, the strife at scrum time was only too predictable, because Vunipola is so poor in the set piece.  The medics will be working hard to get Alex Corbisiero out this week, and how they need him.  The lineout was a showcase of how muddled the thinking has got; when they’d Croft in the team last week, they threw to the front all day.  When they didn’t they went for the tail.  Confused?  You’re not the only one.

The real clanger of a performance came from Ben Youngs, who was at his arm-flapping, faffing-about worst, admittedly behind a retreating pack.  Conor Murray hugely improved the picture when he came on and is better able to control the game when on the back foot.  Are we about to see Warren Gatland go through his entire roll-call of scrum halves over the three test matches, and start Murray in the decider?  And is he about to try and rebalance his backrow once again (notwithstanding that he must replace Warburton due to injury)?  If he does, it will be symptomatic of a failure in selection, an inability to identify the form players.

The real disappointment is that in the warm-up games, the Lions at least appeared determined to play some rugby.  But any aspiration to creativity has disappeared once the test matches have begun.  It looks like the Lions have been suckered into the thinking that ‘winning’ rugby is somehow synonymous with strangling the life out of games.

It makes you despair for the future of the Lions.  We are told that this is the utmost, the pinnacle of the game, but the test matches have been, on the whole, poor to watch, and Lions have been boring.  The Aussies are in pole position to finish off the series in Sydney; they have the momentum and have shaken off their place-kicking hoodoo.   If the Lions don’t win this series, when are they going to win one?  But even worse, if they go down having barely tried to attack Australia, it would beg the question, what is the point?

Geech’s 2009 Lions won many friends because of the enterprise they showed.  They lost, but they ran one of the great teams of the professional era mighty close, were distinctly unlucky and went down swinging playing some great stuff in an era where great stuff was few and far between; 2009 was the year of the ELVs, remember.  In doing so, they put the soul back into a franchise that had suffered huge damage in 2005.  If Gatland’s team perform in Sydney as they did on Saturday, they will have undone that work. The next time we see them, they’ll be going to New Zealand.  Good luck with that one.