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Comment & Analysis | Sport

Ireland can channel Lions frustration into Grand Slam

Jonathan Sexton playing for the Lions
Jonathan Sexton playing for the Lions

WOW. The Lions finally remembered about all that macho posturing in the lead-up to the series and decided they would do what they had claimed they would and target the Wallaby tight forwards.

And once they had been neutralised, it was discovered that actually passing the ball might lead to tries. Who knew?!

A most fortunate series win, down largely to selectorial clangers from Ostrich Deans and a touch of debutant over-exuberance from Christian Leali’ifano in the first 42 seconds in Brisbane.

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Even if it took 160 minutes of rank rugby to get an effective selection and gameplan on the field, the Lions did win the series — the history books won’t record the muddled bench use of Brisbane or the horrendous kick-chase of Melbourne, only the 40-burger of Sydney (and that’s not only because the likes of Stephen Jones write the history books).

What is odd, however, is how few Lions will go home truly satisfied with their tour. Alun Wyn Jones was Lion of the series, for our money, with Leigh Halfpenny shortly behind.

Adam Jones and Alex Corbisiero were hugely effective in tandem, and George North provided plenty of Kodak moments, but who else will be content?

Of the Irish, Conor Murray arugably had the best experience — just two years after being fifth choice Irish scrumhalf (behind, among others, Tomás O’Leary), he ended the series as the standout Lions nine, and if there were a fourth test, he’d be starting it.

Murray went as a poor-man’s-Mike-Phillips press rep and ended it as a key playmaker. Only last year he was struggling badly, with McGahan trying to play him as an extra backrow.

He now looks like the best scrum half in the Six Nations. He’s developed a good partnership with Sexton, which augurs well for the future.

Jon Sexton was the only Irishman to start all three tests, but only really got a chance to play his natural game in Sydney.

In the first two tests, he was reduced to watching kicks, kicking kicks, or lateral shovelling. His kicks were generally accurate, and his chip-and-gathers in the first test showed his class, but he’ll have been frustrated by the gameplan, no doubt a familiar complaint for him.

It was no doubt a frustrating experience (as evidenced by his tirade on being called ashore for Owen Farrell on Saturday), but in spite of the tactics, he showed sufficient class.

Jamie Heaslip and Brian O’Driscoll did nothing wrong in their two starts, but equally, didn’t provide much in the way of attacking rugby — they weren’t lucky enough to play behind a winning pack, like Faletau and Davies were in Sydney, but that will be little consolation.

Being dropped after starting five and nine successive Lions tests respectively (when available for selection) and missing out on a series-winning game will be a bitter pill to swallow.

As for the third Irishman to start twice, Tommy Bowe can’t have enjoyed the first three halves of his second tour, chasing kicks and not getting his hands dirty not being exactly the best use of his considerable talents — at least he got to enjoy himself at the end.

Paul O’Connell enjoyed himself at the start, playing a conspicuous leadership role in the first test before arm-knack ended his tour — more frustration.

Aside from those guys, there wasn’t much else to write home about. DJ Church (Cian Healy) got injured early on, and his replacement, Alex Corbisiero, went on to play a key role in the two test victories.

Rory Best was on the other side of that fence — beneficiary of an original selections (schadenfreude-laden) misfortune — but Besty had a miserable tour, particularly with his wayward darts.

Things picked up for him in the final midweek match, where the Lions scored a late try off Tom Croft’s catch at the tail, thrown by Best, but it’s a case of back to the drawing board for this season.

Ireland do not want for high quality hookers right now, and all of Mike Sherry, Sean Cronin and Richardt Strauss will be kicking down the door to get selected.

Rob Kearney’s tour never really got going due to recurring injury (rumour has it the Lions staff were pretty shocked at his injury situation when he got to camp, to the extent that they would not have considered him for selection were they fully aware of it) and Simon Zebo flew in for a few appearances on the dirt tracks.

Zebo can be a mite disgruntled he didn’t feature in the test squad when Bowe was injured, and in general acquitted himself well.

By all accounts a genial fellow who gets on with everyone, he was an obvious player to bring in to the touring party; another good season with Munster and Ireland beckons.

From a purely Irish (and selfish) perspective, let’s hope that, like in 1983 when the luckless Scottish contingent came home bitter and frustrated at being overlooked, the Irish lads can use this positively in this year’s November series (where they should be targeting at least two wins) and in the 2014 Six Nations.

Thirty years ago, the Scots levered their resentment (at the Irish, ironically) into a Grand Slam — what price Ireland to do the same in 2014?

Under a brand new and progressive coaching ticket, there are strong reasons for optimism.

And we would love it — love it — if we could wipe that smug grin off a certain portly Kiwi’s self-satisfied face.

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Nemesha Balasundaram
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Nemesha Balasundaram is a Reporter with The Irish Post. Follow her on Twitter @nemeshaB

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