Brent Popes Lions Player Watch After The 3rd Test

By admin · July 7, 2009 · Filed in Brent Pope's Player Watch Blog

BRENT POPE 3RD TEST REVIEW
It is was perhaps ironical that it was the Springboks who wore armbands with the words “Justice” written on it them (in support of their suspended lock Bakkies Botha) when the Lions could have just as easily worn the same arm band in terms of at least deserving a test win, possibly the series?
 
Teams do not have a God given right to win matches, but prior to this third and final test, you felt that this Lions in particular, deserved a rub of the green. Largely written off prior to this tour, the brave and wounded Lions came within inches of emulating the 1997 side in a “would have, could have” test series. After two test matches that will rank with some of the most enthralling battles in years, it was the Springboks who made the most of their chances, and perhaps unfairly lead the series 2 nil, but they still wanted a whitewash, as  revenge for the perceived unfair treatment of Botha, and more importantly to erase the painful memories of 1997. What they got was a Lions backlash of epic proportions.
In the end it was the Lions who produced a magnificent 80 minute performance, to not only justify this particular Lions tour, but also ensure that the Lions ethos and future is still in good hands despite a long and arduous season. In the end the 28-9 point win meant that on try count (7-5) and on points aggregate, the Lions were probably the better and more consistent team over the 3 match series- yet they still lost. Sport is so often about the “if’s and buts”, just remember Stephen Jones’s last minute penalty dipping under the bar to give Ireland their Grand slam winning title? Maybe in retrospect the Lions should have won this series, but they didn’t, and if the Springboks had needed to win the third game they certainly wouldn’t have made 10 changes they did. Still the Lions could still only do what was asked of them, and they did it with some aplomb yesterday. Paul O’Connell, so often unfairly criticised on this tour by the English media, was magnificent, both as a player and as a captain. It is funny that the difference between O’Connell emulating the feats of such great Lions Series winning Captains as Willie John McBride (74) and Martin Johnson (97) was in inches not miles. In fact as a player alone, O’Connell was probably superior in many regards to Johnson, and a Jeremy Cuscott drop goal verses a last minute Morne Steyn penalty was the only difference in the end. In my opinion apart from his general play, bravery and quiet achievement, O’Connell has led this team with distinction and pride. Remember not one story of any off the field misdemeanors has filtered back to these Islands, and for the most part on and off the field, the Lions team has been well disciplined, courteous and fiercely proud, this has to had something to do with O’Connell’s leadership.
For once the Lions had the rub of the green in this match, firstly with the scrum penalties going their way early on, a late disallowed Springbok try, and a timely interception by Ugo Monye that could have just as easily been a try at the other end of the field for the Springboks, who were hot on attack before Monye intervened. England’s prop Phi Vickery has weathered a media storm since the first test (myself included) and spoke during the week of the importance of this match to his creditability, and he delivered, not only in the scrums where the added weight of Simon Shaw aided him, but also in his around the field play, with one gang tackle on Springbok No 8 Ryan Kankowski a highlight of the props welcomed rejuvenation.
A patched up Lions backline that contained an ex Kiwi, turned Englishman and now playing next season in France Riki Flutey, and Irish winger Tommy Bowe just showed again how weak the Springboks are in this area, with not a lot of creativity after their well documented kicking game. Flutey had a peach of a match, using his side stepping running to good effect, and pulling off some tremendous tackles. Bowe was also responsible for the two tackles that denied the Boks try’s in the corner, and despite looking a little uncomfortable in an unaccustomed position of centre, Bowe did remarkably well, and was not that far down the pecking order as the overall player of the tour.
Rob Kearney again delivered, with another first half performance that just continued on from where he left off last week. Kearney will return home as one of the most talented footballers in the world, and with the rugby world at his feet, he is now a certainty for the Irish no 15 jersey, and apart from injuries should not appear on the wing again, for any team. On the other wing the diminutive Shane Williams finally found the type of form that made him the world’s best player last year. Williams has struggled to replicate his high billing on this tour, mainly because he is just too small in a country that favors big, straight running backs, but given some space Williams can get thought the smallest of gaps, and while his two tries were plated up for him by the outstanding Jamie Heaslip( my man of the match just ahead of Mike Phillips and O’Connell) and then  Riki Fluety’s sleight of hand, William’s experience still put him the right place at the right time, and it was just reward for William’s constant following up.
Like Vickery, Ugo Monye had a point to prove after making a hash of his opportunities in the first test, and his timely intercept try really spelt the end of the match for the hosts. If the Springboks had scored when Monye intercepted, then they may have clawed their way back into this match, but Monye, like Brian Habbana on so many occasions, took his chance. Stephen Jones and Mike Phillips in particular were both outstanding, with Philips surely the most aggressive defender in his position in the world, while Jones moved onto Phillips passes at pace. In the Lions pack the outstanding player was Jamie Heaslip, who set up one try with a never say tackled movement, and then saved another minutes later with an over-head save. Heaslip tackled, burst up field with the ball in hand and assisted Martyn Williams at the breakdown. The South Africans have a new found respect for a young player that is now challenging the best No 8’s in the world. A few years ago Heaslip was out bid as the “world under age player of the year” by All Black No 8 Jeremy Kaino, this Lions series, Heaslip has left the man with the silver fern in his wake, and as long as the Leinster man stays sound and fit he is going to be a phenomenal player. Alongside Heaslip, England’s Joe Worsley emptied the Springboks with every tackle, and won some valuable lineout ball to boot, while open side flanker Martyn Williams showed that maybe he should have been selected to start in the first two tests, with a display of ground hog play that the Lions badly needed. Shaw and O’Connell were majestic in the engine room, and Shaw in particular has given new hope to those players thinking that 30 years of age is on the downhill slope for a test player, think again? Shaw will be 37 soon, and who would bet on not seeing him in an English shirt next season.
 
It was a fitting end to a magnificent test series, and a series that brought back memories of the amateur days where team spirit and determination can still win the day. The Lions Players and Management can be proud of what they have achieved, and like Paul O’Connell said post match, “to win in the Southern Hemisphere may lead to greater days for the home unions” Lets hope so? From a South African prospective, the World Champions looked far from that, with a pedestrian backline that when missing some key players look well short on creative play. Teams will work on combating the Springboks kicking game as Kearny and co did, and they have a lot of rebuilding to do before another tilt at the World Cup in 2 years.
 
How the Irish rated:
 
Rob Kearney. 8.5
 
  Now rivals ALL BLACK  Mils Muliania as the best No 15 in the world game. After one of the great fullback performances of all time last week, Kearney started this week as he had finished last weeks match. Brilliant on the counter attack, and in the air, Kearney must be a candidate for the overall player of the tour. Came in originally under Lee Byrnes shadow, but has now emerged well ahead of the Welshman. Made a few small mistakes late in the match, but overall another brilliant display.
 
 
Tommy Bowe 7:
 
 Has been a revelation on this tour, and in Irelands Grand Slam winning season this year. Bowe was made to play in an unaccustomed position of centre, and did it reasonably well. Made a few central trusts, one of which could have resulted in a try, but understandably struggled with the change in position at times. Defended heroically, and was the last man defending in two of the Springbok’s main try scoring chances.
 
Jamie Heaslip: 9:
 
  My “Man of the match” An absolute complete display from the modern day No 8. Heaslip is athletic, intelligent, hardworking, and is the new fit for all future No 8s.
 An excellent tour that defies his age
 
Paul O’Connell. 8:
 
 Led his team magnificently and took lineout ball with ease. Looked like a leaping Jack Salmon when steeling the opposition throw and carried more ball that any other forward. Perfected two or 3 ruck turnovers and spoke articulately after the game. Well respected by everybody on the tour. Ireland can be proud of his massive input.
 
John Hayes: 7
 
 The “Bull” Hayes gets to savor a test win in another red jersey, and he will dine out on it for life. A long way from the tractor in Bruff, but played his part, by shifting tiring Springbok bodies out of the way like he was picking up litter off the street. No coincidence that the Lions snaffled more lineout ball when Hayes was on the park.
 
David Wallace:
 
 Made a cameo performance, but was not going to match the heroics of Martyn Williams. Like the other Irish players a fantastic tour.
 
Player of the match: Jamie Heaslip:
 
Turing Point:  The first scrum and Ugo Monyes intercept try that finally saw the Springboks out the gate.

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