It cannot possibly happen again… can it? A dozen years ago, the Lions laid waste to this loud, brash, super-confident sporting city and frightened the Australian Rugby Union into re-examining its entire approach to the three-Test series. Today, the Wallaby nation believes it will get its retaliation in first. Imagine the panic if the tourists produce a repeat performance.
Unlike 2001, this game is being played at a state-of-the-art rugby arena beloved by all modern Wallabies, rather than a famous cricket ground adapted for the day by the Australian governing body – and pretty much transformed for ever in union terms by the untold thousands of red-shirted Lions supporters who bought, begged or just possibly stole a ticket for the match.
The ARU chief executive, Bill Pulver, confessed this week that he was “still having nightmares about that sea of red”. He will never sleep again if the tide rolls in a second time.
In attempting to minimise the risk, the Wallabies decided on the “behind closed doors” approach to preparation, staying in camp on the Sunshine Coast while the Lions have been flogging themselves around the country in all winds and weathers. Now they are in clear view, they are busily talking themselves up. As for the ARU, good money is being shelled out on lorry loads of free gold-coloured “lion-hunting safari hats”, designed to offset the fresh waves of crimson. This last move smacks just a little of desperation, but then, so do most public-relations stunts.
Neither team is quite as strong as originally planned: the Lions have lost three of their “Panzer backs” in Jamie Roberts, Tommy Bowe and Manu Tuilagi; the Wallabies have seen players as potent as David Pocock and Scott Higginbotham ruled out by injury and are not quite ready to start a Test with the brilliant Kurtley Beale, preferring to take a more cautious approach with the Sydneysider following his recent issues with alcohol. Yet, at the same time, both are straining at the leash. At a venue fit for a classic – the Suncorp Stadium is among the two or three best union locations in the world – we could witness precisely that.
Yesterday, the tourists’ defence coach, Andy Farrell – a rugby league maestro who learnt a thing or two about what it takes to stare down the best Australian sportsmen on their own mudheaps – was in full warpaint. It was Farrell who led the way in tearing strips off the midweek Lions forwards following a limp first-half display against the Brumbies in Canberra. When asked if he thought he might have to reinforce his message at any point during the Test, his reply was as darkly intimidating as could be. “I have absolutely no doubt that I won’t,” he said, quietly.
Farrell confirmed that two of the Lions’ starting line-up, the centre Jonathan Davies and the flanker Tom Croft, missed the eve-of-Test practice run, held in pouring rain at a spectacularly swanky private school in the east of the city. Davies, he said, was stiff after a double training session on Thursday, while Croft was suffering from an inflamed toe. Happily for the Lions followers flocking into town, he added that neither man was giving cause for concern.
Like everyone else – coaches, players, supporters – Farrell found himself talking about the new force in the Wallaby back division, the debutant wing Israel Folau. “He’s some talent,” the Lancastrian acknowledged. “He seems to find ways of getting his hands free, offloading the ball and making things happen. He has played on the wing only once that we know of and it’s a tough ask to get everything right immediately, but I wouldn’t put it past him.”
Farrell was, however, more complimentary still about two players certain to play a significant role for the Lions as they seek a first series victory since the triumph in South Africa in 1997. Farrell described the Irish outside-half Jonathan Sexton as a “leader”, adding: “I haven’t seen anyone as thorough in his preparation. He demands excellence because that’s what he expects of himself.”
As for Leigh Halfpenny, the knee-high-to-a-grasshopper full-back whose goal-kicking has been such a striking feature of the tour to date, the coach reached for the word “phenomenal” and expressed complete confidence he would make the right decisions today.
“Having him in our side says to the opposition: ‘You have to be disciplined,’” Farrell said. “We know that Australia like to live on the edge at the breakdown and with an official like Chris Pollock, who tends to referee that area vigorously, it will prey on opposition minds that we have a kicker like Leigh on the field.”
Should it come down to sticking the ball between the uprights – and if the Lions scrummage well enough, things could turn out that way – Halfpenny will surely hold the aces. What the tourists do not know is how the Wallabies will deploy the many and varied playmakers in their back division. Berrick Barnes, Digby Ioane, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali’ifano, James O’Connor… these people are nobody’s fools with ball in hand and should bring a rich variety to the Australian attacking game.
The Wallaby hooker Stephen Moore, who was present at the 2001 Test here and has long considered it a formative influence on his rugby, captured the excitement perfectly when he discussed the prospects yesterday. “That game 12 years ago was the first time we Australians had seen opposition support like that and we were taken aback by it,” he said. “The intensity of the occasion was massive. And now we have the chance to experience it ourselves. There are guys with 100 Wallaby caps who never had the opportunity to play the Lions, but we do. And we’re all in the same place: it doesn’t matter if you’re a first-time Wallaby or one with 70 appearances behind him, none of us have done this before.”
If the Lions have an advantage, other than Halfpenny’s marksmanship and a set-piece game that should be stronger than Australia’s, it is that half their team have experienced this kind of occasion before. But, as Farrell pointed out, “big games between two class sides are won on physicality and energy”. And those things cannot be measured in advance.
First Test pointers
1899 First Test Australia won 13-3
Series result Lions won 3-1
1904 First Test Lions won 17-0
Series result Lions won 3-0
1930 First Test Australia won 6-5
Series result Australia won 1-0
1950 First Test Lions won 19-6
Series result Lions won 2-0
1959 First Test Lions won 17-6
Series result Lions won 2-0
1966 First Test Lions won 11-8
Series result Lions won 2-0
1989 First Test Australia won 30-12
Series result Lions won 2-1
2001 First Test Lions won 29-13
Series result Australia won 2-1
Play it again, Sam
It is a quandary all sportsmen and women face when the biggest moment of their career arrives: what will the soundtrack be? In leading out the Lions today, captain Sam Warburton revealed yesterday it will be ‘The Black Album’ by US heavy metal gods Metallica that will be in his headphones. If the tourists get the result they want then Nothing Else Matters, but if they succumb to the Aussies it will be Sad But True.