Australia: British and Irish Lions set to crash into rising force

Coach Michael Foley is looking forward to welcoming the tourists to Perth, where he’s building a team to give them a real challenge, he tells Chris Hewett

If there is something not quite right about a British and Irish Lions tour of Australia beginning in Hong Kong, which has about as much in common with the Wallaby heartlands as David Campese has with the average Trappist, it will feel even more disorientating watching a proper game of rugby in Perth. There is no place on God’s sweet earth that has been more hospitable to the Lions: the last time they played there, in the opening match of the 2001 trek, they scored more heavily than Justin Langer, a local hero in a very different sport.

It is reasonably safe to predict that the tourists will not win 116-10 this time. Indeed, they will do unbelievably well to match the 60-3 result they recorded on their first visit to the city in 1966 or the 44-0 victory they chalked up some 23 years later. Why? Because in less than a decade, the hometown team has transformed itself from a ragtag collection of no-hopers into a fully-fledged, fully professional Super Rugby franchise.

“We are,” says Michael Foley, who will coach Western Force against the Lions on 5 June, in the first match of the tour proper, “in the process of discovering exactly out how we want to play and who we want to be. The playing side is still a work in progress: some world-class operators – Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, Nathan Sharpe and David Pocock – have either retired or moved elsewhere, so we’ve had to draw a line under that era. Effectively, this team is six months old and we have a lot of developing to do.

“But in terms of finding out who we are, we’ve made some big strides. When the Lions come to town, we’ll take another significant step. I’ll have some juggling to do in that first week in June: three days after the Lions match, we play a Super 15 game with the Waratahs [the major Sydney-based team] and we’ll want to win it. But the Lions are massive – every rugby follower for miles around is already buzzing about it – and we intend to be very competitive. I’ve already had players coming up to me and asking if they can play in both games, which is pretty unusual in the professional age. The Lions come here once every 12 years. Who wouldn’t want to take them on?”

Foley knows plenty about taking on the Lions. He also knows what it is to beat them. A hard-bitten, World Cup-winning Wallaby hooker, he called time on his international career a dozen years ago after performing a crucial role in Australia’s 2-1 series triumph. Recalled to the starting front row after the tourists had rocked the hosts with a four-try victory in the first match in Brisbane, he was the central figure in a much-improved scrummaging performance that helped swing the Melbourne Test his country’s way, and was also the man who propelled Justin Harrison high into the Sydney night sky in the final few seconds of the decider, thereby enabling the lock to pickpocket Martin Johnson at a crucial line-out.

“To tell you the truth, I’m not actually certain that I had much to do with Justin’s leap,” he admits. “I might have lost my grip at the critical moment. Still, he got up there, and that’s the main thing. What I do remember is the massive intensity of the whole Lions experience. It’s obviously the highest peak for a rugby player in the British Isles – I can only imagine what it feels like to be selected for your country and then go one further by being chosen among the best of the best – but it’s pretty damned important for us too. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and there’s no greater motivation than that.

“I’d won my share of honours – Bledisloe Cups here and there, the World Cup in ’99 – so it was the thought of taking a shot at the Lions that kept me going as long as I did. The thing that really attracted me was the thought of playing a proper series against a single opponent. You don’t get much of that in rugby nowadays, but when I was a kid and the Wallabies were playing three Tests against the All Blacks or four against the Springboks, it really gripped me. When the Lions came and I was involved, it all came flooding back.

“And when it was all over and I was sitting there drinking beer with Keith Wood [the grand Irish hooker who had been Foley’s direct opponent], I couldn’t help feeling a bit overwhelmed by the scale of it all. To have played against and beaten people like Wood and Johnson and Danny Grewcock, players who had my complete respect… well, it’s hard to put into words, even now. And you have to remember that at half-time in Melbourne, at the mid-point of the series, we were very definitely second: one Test and 11-6 down. There but for the grace of God…”

After finally retiring as a player Foley became the forward coach at Bath and then assistant coach of the Wallabies. Unlike the 2001 party, which featured the Bath full-backs Matt Perry and Iain Balshaw and the midfielder Mike Catt, the latest Lions squad does not feature a Recreation Grounder. Still, there will be intense interest in the Georgian city when the red-shirted bandwagon rolls into Perth, not just because of Foley. Coaching the Force alongside him is Steve Meehan (right), who was running things on the banks of the Avon as recently as 2011.

Both men had their ups and downs at Bath. In Foley’s case, a couple of nasty scrapes with relegation were followed by a table-topping campaign and an appearance in the Premiership final at Twickenham, where his side lost narrowly to Wasps. “Those two poor seasons were the most difficult times of my rugby life,” he says, “but because of what I went through, an old-fashioned scrap holds no fear for me now. In fact, I quite like the challenge.”

And Meehan? For all his apparent problems on the man-management front, he proved himself one of the more imaginative coaches in the land, and under his guidance Bath played a distinctive brand of attacking rugby that has proved beyond them since his departure. According to Foley, the Force are slowly learning to express themselves in a rugby language they can call their own. It will be fascinating to see how loudly their game talks against the Lions.

He does not expect to lose many bodies to the Wallaby squad: he says the lock Hugh McMeniman has a shout, feels the loose forwards Richard Brown and Matt Hodgson should be considered – “they’ve both kicked some hide this year” – and is excited by the potential of the young inside back Kyle Godwin and another of his back-rowers, the fast-improving Angus Cottrell. But in all likelihood he will be able to throw his first team at the Lions, thereby giving them an early and extremely thorough examination.

So how does he feel the Wallabies will approach the forthcoming challenge? “It seems to me,” Foley replies, “that they can do it in one of two ways, and we won’t know which until we see the selection. It would be possible for Robbie Deans [the New Zealander who coaches Australia] to pick an extremely physical back division. If he goes for a really aggressive tackler at centre like Pat McCabe, it will give us an indication of how he’s going to play it. There again, someone like Christian Leali’ifano, who is performing outstandingly well in Super 15, would bring a completely different skill set. I think there’s a greater depth and range in Wallaby rugby now. It’s more difficult for opponents to predict how we’ll shape up.

“This much I know: the Wallabies will be more competitive in the scrum than a lot of people up your way assume, and the contest at the breakdown will be ferocious. The tackle area is something the Australians want to make theirs, because whoever gets on the front foot at the point of contact most often over the course of the series will almost certainly win it.”

Perth pastings: Roaring Lions

1966: Western Australia 3-60 Lions

John Robins’ tourists cantered to victory on their first visit to the city, 36 years after first facing the side at Brennan Park. Scot Sandy Hinshelwood and Ireland’s Jerry Walsh both went over three times, while Don Rutherford kicked 18 points.

1989: Western Australia 0-44 Lions

Irishman Brendan Mullin contributed three tries and Rory Underwood two  for Ian McGeechan’s side as the Lions began a tour in which they would beat Australia 2-1.

2001: Western Australia 10-116 Lions

Hat-tricks from Scott Quinnell and Dan Luger, with three other players going over twice, added to Ronan O’Gara’s 13 conversions as Graham Henry’s side got off to a flyer on an ultimately unsuccessful tour.

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