British & Irish Lions tour of Australia: Wallaby hunters may require oxygen masks

Task facing Gatland’s players so high on difficulty scale it could make them giddy

Hong Kong

A Lions tour of Wallaby country? Piece of cake. Look at the history and do the maths: Australia have beaten the British Isles only five times in 20 attempts, and one of those victories was in the 19th century, when many colonials were still playing with balls chained to their ankles. Statistically speaking, the chances of the red-shirted hordes winning a Test series in these parts are almost four times greater than achieving something similar in New Zealand. If ever there was a moment for the Poms to do the bashing, we’re living in it right now.

And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. Forget the sums and disregard the precedents: this trip to Australia is so high on the scale of difficulty, the players may need oxygen masks by the end of it. Three Tests, five meetings with fully-fledged Super 15 teams and only a single “soft” fixture against opponents perfectly capable of chucking their weight around in time-honoured “if you can’t beat ‘em, fight ‘em” fashion. The next five weeks will not be short of challenges.

The last time the Lions went Wallaby hunting in 2001, they left Heathrow armed with the strongest squad of the professional era: indeed, some felt it was the best since Willie John McBride’s “invincibles”, who, more than a quarter of a century previously, had played 22 matches in South Africa and won all of them except the last, which they drew. This, rugby followers in the old country convinced themselves, was the point at which British Isles rugby would again scale the heights reached in the 1970s.

Led by Graham Henry, a New Zealander who had worked so many miracles as coach of Wales that  the folk in the valleys called  him “the Great Redeemer”, the “2001ers” had a forward pack for  all the ages – Keith Wood, Phil Vickery, Martin Johnson, Danny Grewcock, Richard Hill and Scott Quinnell were playing the best rugby of their lives – and a back division of all the talents.

Rob Howley was surely the world’s best scrum-half, Jonny Wilkinson was in his pomp, Brian O’Driscoll and Jason Robinson were tripping the light fantastic. As the Wallabies were an ageing side in steep decline, nowhere near as accomplished as they had been in bagging the 1999 World Cup, and were privately wondering how they could possibly win, what could go wrong?

Answer? Lots. Henry understood too little about the unique dynamic of Lions team-building and was quickly out of sync with too many of his players, some of whom felt marginalised from the outset. He ended the tour a solitary figure: downtrodden, downhearted, defeated.

Add to this a long casualty list, insubordination by certain individuals who preferred talking a good game in the press to playing one on the field and the odd calamitous error in the heat of battle – Wilkinson’s over-ambitious cut-out pass in Melbourne; Johnson’s line-out malfunction in Sydney – and there you have it: a recipe for failure.

The current coach, Warren Gatland, is also a New Zealander engaged in making Wales very nearly as good as they think they are, but the similarities with Henry end there. The long-serving All Black hooker has spent the vast majority of his post-playing career working with British and Irish teams, invariably successfully, and he knows what it means to spend time in the Lions hothouse, having been a member of Sir Ian McGeechan’s back-room staff in South Africa four years ago. He talks the players’ language – his style is that of a popular prefect rather than an austere and distant headmaster – and when it comes to strategy and tactics, he keeps it simple.

But he knows better than anyone that his tour schedule is harder than the one Henry faced – a dozen years ago, there were three “gimme” games in 10 matches; this time, there is one in nine – and that the pressure is infinitely greater. Much of it is of the commercial variety.

 If American sport, with its strict financial regulation and its democratic draft systems, has been labelled “socialism for rich people”, the modern Lions tour is a symbol of capitalism gone mad. This particular event is costing a cool £14m to stage, with salaries alone touching the £7m mark. (Players will earn around £45,000 for six weeks’ work, rising to £67,000 if they leave Australia unbeaten). The principal partner is the world’s second biggest bank, HSBC, and there are three further global sponsors. There is an official kit manufacturer, an official outfitter, official providers of nutrition products and training equipment, an official airline, an official recruitment agency, even an official “media supplier”, whatever that means. The bean counters expect a 30 per cent rise in revenue on the 2009 figure, and will probably get it.

But the success of this venture will not be measured by brand recognition, despite what the advertising brain-stormers imagined when they dressed the reluctant Gatland as an 18th century ship’s captain, put a telescope in his hand and stuck him on primetime television. It will be measured by Test results in Australia’s three biggest cities. The Lions have won only two series in nine since McBride and his men inflicted the torments of hell on the Springboks almost 40 years ago, and they realise they cannot keep losing. Not if they want to be taken as seriously in another 40 years as they are now.

Can they make it happen for themselves this time? It is not out of the question, for the Australians are hardly in the best of places. There have been almost as many upheavals in the Wallaby camp under Robbie Deans – yes, he’s a New Zealander too – as there were in the England ranks during Johnson’s sorry spell as national manager and two of Australia’s supercharged attacking talents, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale, are on the naughty step as we speak, the former for talking too much and the latter for drinking too much.

There are injuries, too: David Pocock, the only serious challenger to the All Black captain Richie McCaw as the world’s finest breakaway forward, is on crutches and therefore off limits; the wing Digby Ioane and the veteran flanker George Smith are struggling for fitness while the hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau is a major injury doubt.  Oh yes, one other thing:  the Australian Rugby Union says it  is losing money hand over fist and  is threatening front-line players with pay cuts. But the Wallabies are at the forefront of smart rugby thinking, just as they were when Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh and John Eales were clad in the green and gold. They may not field the biggest forwards, but they will have the sharpest brains: they proved that in outwitting England at Twickenham last November – easily the cleverest tactical performance of the season.

Gatland has selected intelligently: in most positions, he can bring size and power to bear on the Wallabies,  hence the Australian rugby press dubbing the Lions “big slabs of meat” when Gatland’s squad was announced. But the tourists are light in key areas, most notably the central decision-making position of outside-half.

The Irish playmaker Jonathan Sexton is the best No 10 in Europe by a mile, and the single most important Lion by the same distance. If he falls apart, the walls could easily come tumbling down.

Replacing injured Warburton will be difficult, says Pocock

Injured Australia flanker David Pocock believes the Lions will struggle to replace captain Sam Warburton if his knee injury forces him to miss any more matches.

Pocock, 25, is recovering from surgery on his own knee that has ruled him out of all three Tests but will provide analysis and technical advice to Australia’s coaching staff throughout the series. Warburton is not expected to be available until the third tour match against Queensland Reds next weekend and the man who would have been his opposite number acknowledged the Welsh skipper will play a critical role in Warren Gatland’s squad.

“Warburton is a key for them,” Pocock said. “He’s such a big part of the psyche of the Welsh team and their guys really look to him for direction. It’s going to be no different with the Lions.

“He’s really going to be the go-to man, I think the Lions have the ability to put a lot of pressure on at the breakdown and that area is obviously going to be a big focus for us.”

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