Eye of the storm

The day the Lions tour turned ugly
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The Independent Online

Ronan O'Gara's face bears the bloody scars of the unacceptably violent tour match against New South Wales that has left relations between the British and Irish Lions and their Australian hosts at a dangerously low ebb. Duncan McRae, the Waratahs' full-back, was sent off after landing 11 punches on the inexperienced outside-half from Munster, while five players were sin-binned, four of them for their part in a brawl that broke out minutes after McRae's dismissal in a match watched by 40,000 at the Sydney Football Stadium. Graham Henry, the Lions coach, spoke of a "black day for rugby".

Both McRae, who apologised for his actions after the game, and O'Gara have been summoned before a judicial hearing in Sydney today. The proceedings will be chaired by New Zealand's Nick Davidson, who will be accompanied by Terry Willis, a Sydney-based barrister, and Peter Johnson, the former Wallaby hooker. McRae is in serious trouble, despite his lack of "previous": 11 punches delivered to the face and head of a prone opponent is at least 10 too many. But O'Gara also stands accused of foul play, and the Waratahs contend that their man acted in retaliation.

After a fortnight of anti-Lions propaganda in the Australian press – the tourists have been accused of everything from adopting a policy of organised violence to institutionalised cheating at scrum and line-out – the mood before yesterday's game was more than a little sour. There was trouble almost immediately, when the Wallaby lock Tom Bowman was sin-binned for dangerous play straight from the kick-off, and while the rest of the first half passed off peacefully, the McRae incident triggered several minutes of wildly over-physical havoc.

"It was a disgrace," said Donal Lenihan, the Lions manager, of McRae's assault. "If one of the Lions players had perpetrated that act, you can imagine what the headlines in the Australian papers would have been like. Ronan has two lacerations under his left eye, and you saw the state he was in when he left the field." Lenihan added: "I have to say that if the boot had been on the other foot, we Lions would have been up to our necks in it for another 12 years." That comment was a reference to the notoriously violent 1989 Lions tour of Australia, on which Lenihan was the midweek captain.

Needless to say, the two head coaches begged to differ on the precise details of who, what and why. Henry's mood immediately after the game bordered on the apoplectic. "I didn't know rugby could go as low as that," he spluttered. Later, he congratulated his players on their "character and discipline", adding: "If they hadn't shown those qualities, that match could have got right out of hand. It was a very black day for the game of rugby down here today.

"Was the violence premeditated? It's possible, I suppose. There seems to be some agenda in Australia in terms of attacking what we're doing as a team. We've been accused of using illegal tactics at the scrum, at the line-out and at the breakdown. I don't know that there are too many other areas of the game for us to be illegal in."

For his part, the Waratahs coach, Bob Dwyer, condemned McRae's excessive reaction to whatever provocation he had received, but insisted that his team had set out with the best of intentions. "It would be difficult to deny that Duncan threw a fair few punches," said the 1991 World Cup-winning Wallaby coach, who returned to Australia this time last year after English Premiership spells with Leicester and Bristol. "But he says he acted in retaliation and anyway, it was hardly the first incident in the game. The first punch of the match was thrown by Danny Grewcock and it was not spotted by the referee. The first punishable punch was thrown by Phil Vickery, another Lion.

"There was no unhealthy approach from my team. Look at our record: violence is not what we do. We were the second least penalised side in this year's Super 12, we picked up only two yellow cards, one of which was for a professional foul. If I'd wanted someone to start some mayhem out there, I certainly wouldn't have chosen Duncan McRae."

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