The Lions management remain apoplectic over the high tackle that put Richard Hill, their most accomplished loose forward, out of this weekend's decisive Test with the Wallabies, and if the victim had the slightest idea of how he suffered the mother of all concussions, he would probably be apoplectic too. As it is, the Saracens flanker is merely bitterly frustrated at missing what he suspects would have been the most significant match of his four-year stint amid the mud and bullets of international rugby.
"Potentially, I have pulled on the Lions shirt for the last time, and in that sense I'm finding it difficult to come to terms with the injury," he said yesterday. "I have the consolation of having played a part in this tour and of starting two Tests. I feel I committed myself to the cause, that I played pretty well and made a contribution. But this is a massive disappointment, however you dress it up. Four years ago in South Africa, we won the series early. This is different, because the series is going to a decider. There will be a hell of a lot of pressure, and I would have relished being a part of it."
Hill was playing his usual blinder when the left side of his head came into contact with the left shoulder of Nathan Grey, the aggressive Wallaby centre, after 34 minutes of the first half in Melbourne. The shoulder won, comprehensively. Donal Lenihan, the Lions manager, described Grey's tackle as "malicious", and was not remotely amused when the citing commissioner decided against taking action against the Australian. Hill, who had just fumbled a pass from Martin Johnson when Grey arrived at a considerable rate of knots, was genuinely unaware that he had been hit illegally.
"Am I upset about the tackle? Not really," he said. "What upsets me is that my tour is over. It doesn't really matter whether a player was cited, or whether I was the victim of a complete accident. I have to deal with the outcome either way, and that is what I'm trying to do now. I've asked to stay with the squad, because I'm keen to give them whatever encouragement they need. The Wallabies obviously played well in Melbourne; Australians are fantastically proud of their sporting achievements, and they don't want to let anything slip, least of all their rugby. But I believe we have the individual talent and the work ethic to make it happen for ourselves on Saturday." Over the next few days, it will be down to the senior players – those that are left, following the injuries to Lawrence Dallaglio and Rob Howley – to galvanise that talent and maximise that work ethic.
They have already set about their task. Johnson called a meeting of the inner circle yesterday, and more discussions are scheduled. Keith Wood, the captain of Ireland and a figure of mighty influence on this trip, gave an inkling into the thinking yesterday by identifying the set-piece as the key to knocking the world champions off their perch at Stadium Australia.
"We need to look at our first phase disciplines and make certain that we perform with a higher degree of efficiency than we managed in Melbourne," said the Harlequins hooker and all-round inspiration. "We didn't function as an eight in the line-out, and we certainly didn't scrummage as well as in Brisbane. There were mistakes, yes, and a couple of them were down to me. But I also give the Wallabies their due. They targetted us extremely well and caused some mayhem.
"Psychologically, it's important to discount both the first and second Tests and see this game for what it is: a one-off contest, with everything to play for. If you think about the quality of this Wallaby side, they were never going to dissolve into nothing on the strength of one defeat in Brisbane and hand us the series. The same can be said for ourselves. When you have an opportunity to play in a winning Lions team, you set everything aside – fatigue, bumps, bruises, the lot." There was some humour, too. Asked whether the scale of the reverse at the Colonial Stadium had made the Lions contemplate the possibility of a severe hiding on Saturday, Wood replied: "Crikey, I thought you were going to ask me if we were contemplating suicide. I don't think we're contemplating either, thank you."
Meanwhile, the great Jonny Wilkinson question – will he be fit for the decider, or will the injury he suffered to the lower part of his left leg force the selectors into making the most difficult personnel decision of the tour? – remained unresolved as the Newcastle stand-off arrived in Sydney following 24 hours of bed-rest in Melbourne. There were some heartening signals, however. Wilkinson had his protective plaster removed yesterday, and was able to walk in relative comfort. According to Hill, who travelled with him, the vibes were better than expected.
"Our medical staff say the outlook is positive," said Lenihan. "Jonny is making progress, and his mood is upbeat. At this stage, I give him a 50-50 chance of playing." That assessment is approximately 100 per cent better than the one on Saturday night, when Wilkinson was thought to have broken his fibula. At this stage of the tour, no definitive news is good news.Reuse content