Austin Healey has played more than 50 matches this season – a daft number, even by the standards of this monumentally daft game – and as a consequence, he has tweaks and twinges in places he did not realise existed until sundry Wallaby types, most notably those playing for the ACT Brumbies, caught up with him and gave him both barrels. "The only part of me that doesn't hurt is my tongue," grinned the Leicester Lip, minutes after being told that he would start a Lions Test for the first time at Stadium Australia this weekend. "It means I can give Joe Roff some earache on Saturday."
Those who watched Healey's last tangle with the magnificent Mr Roff, which occurred during the Cook Cup match at Twickenham last November, will wonder whether the cocksure Englishman has what it takes to get within shouting range of the most natural finisher in southern hemisphere rugby. On that occasion, Roff gave Healey the bum's rush; indeed, the contest on Australia's left flank was one of the very few decided in the visitors' favour, and it very nearly won them the match. Healey is not noted for giving an opponent an even break in the build-up to a major Test, but he was deeply complimentary about his tormentor yesterday.
"Roff has rounded me a couple of times, and I suppose the public will expect him to go round me again," he said. "In that sense, I have nothing to lose, have I? It's not simply a one-on-one battle out there; I'll be looking to get my hands on the ball and work myself into the game, not just worry about what he might be doing. But yes, things happened back in the autumn that I needed to address and eradicate, and I hope I've done that. Roff is one of the finest wings in the world, whereas I am not the world's best finisher or the best ball-carrier. My game is about different things. I'll be operating on a roving brief, as usual. It's the only style I know."
There have been times on this trip when Healey has been in rather less complimentary mood. He was not best pleased at the outset, having been selected as third scrum-half behind Rob Howley and Matthew Dawson, and he was seriously underwhelmed when the hierarchy declined to give him a start in any of the first three games. (Having performed quite brilliantly off the bench in both Perth and Townsville, he confidently expected a full 80 minutes against Queensland in Brisbane. Those expectations came to nothing). When he was finally given a first-up run, against Australia A in Gosford, he played poorly in a poor side. Disenchanted with life in general and certain coaching practices in particular, he sided with Dawson when the latter launched his ill-conceived tirade against the management on the morning of the first Test.
Healey is not a great one for regrets – he has annoyed too many of his elders and supposed betters to lay awake at night pondering the whys and wherefores of his various outbursts – and there was nothing apologetic about his mood yesterday. Just a sideways smile, a knowing glance or two and the odd chuckle at the thought of making the Test team on form, despite all the shenanigans.
"When you come on a tour like this for seven weeks, you expect your share of ups and downs," he shrugged when asked about his more accusatory public comments. "But rugby matches do not come much more important than this one, and I would willingly accept all the downs imaginable if it meant finishing on a high. There are things in rugby that lie outside of my experience – I haven't been a part of a Grand Slam side, and I haven't won a World Cup – so I can't place this match in the great scheme of things. I don't even know if it's bigger than winning a European Cup title with Leicester, because that was something very personal and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But a decisive Lions Test against the world champions has to be right up there, and while there have been frustrating moments during this trip, I'm very proud of my selection."
Graham Henry, the head coach, thought long and hard about picking "the Lip" for last weekend's Test in Melbourne. Having fielded his most versatile player at scrum-half in Gosford and Coffs Harbour and watched him cut various sides to ribbons from outside-half in the latter stages of other games, the New Zealander was so taken by Healey's contribution from the wing during the unlikely victory over the Brumbies in Canberra eight days ago that he considered dropping the bigger, more predictable Welshman Dafydd James for the visit to the Colonial Stadium. However, Healey effectively made Henry's decision for him by leaving the Australian capital on crutches.
His physical discomfort was partially of his own making. Not for the first time in a highly-charged game, Healey sledged the opposition to distraction and made lifetime enemies of a fair few of them, not least Justin Harrison, the outsized Brumbies' lock. When Healey intercepted a pass from his former Leicester clubmate, Pat Howard, and scuttled the best part of 70 metres to restore the Lions' interest in a contest that had threatened to race away from them, Harrison ran almost as far to deliver an off-the-ball clip and inform him: "That's just one try, you little ?*@?*!, and you Brits are taking a stuffing." After scoring a second, match-winning try in the umpteenth minute of injury time, Healey sought out Harrison and responded in characteristic fashion. "That's try number two, you great lump," he said. "What's more, you've just lost."
In Healey's world, a quality insult is worth any number of late challenges; he is a sporting entertainer of the first rank, and the verbal barrage is part and parcel of his act. But international rugby matches are rarely decided by the standard of invective. If the Lions are to prevail on Saturday, they will require rock-solid basics and a top layer of attacking ingenuity. As far as their new right wing is concerned, that equates to a faultless defensive performance against Roff, plus half a dozen attacking interventions in half a dozen different parts of the Stadium Australia paddock.
"I am the sort of player who needs to make the most of opportunities as and when they arrive," Healey said. "I am not so arrogant as to come on a tour like this and claim to possess the ability to play Test rugby in a variety of positions. Had I not been given a start, I would certainly have left Australia a disappointed man. But there is an element of luck on a Lions tour: Some people get a chance at the right time, others have to wait until the end for their opportunity. My opportunity is now, in the final game. It means a great deal to me."Reuse content