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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition