Lions tours can never please all the people all the time – they are either too long or too short, they go to the wrong places at the wrong time with the wrong players – and, in particular, the ones to Australia lack the intensity and variety of the odysseys around South Africa and New Zealand.
Yet if you had to pick the most memorable matches out of the tourists’ modern pantheon, chances are two of them would belong to Brisbane: the First Test of 2001 when a young Irishman named Brian unveiled his gifts at The Gabba and the fans sang “Waltzing O’Driscoll”, and the Second Test at Ballymore in 1989, when men were men and forwards punched each other and the scrum-halves did too. Oh, and the Lions won both, by the way.
It may seem far-fetched to imagine the First Test, 2013 style, in Brisbane next week, being touched by the same magic or dripping with fresh blood. Not least because the current tour has muddled along at a middling pace during its first three weeks – or has it been four? It has been hard to tell when half the players got together in mid-May while the other half, to the shame of everyone connected with making the fixtures, were still busy with club matters. The two New Zealander head coaches, Robbie Deans of Australia and Warren Gatland of the Lions, have done their best to engender interest with their smirks and gripes and occasional tactical revelation.
But the Wallabies’ best players have been wrapped in the proverbial cotton wool (and one or two banned from the booze, bless their slightly sozzled souls) rather than fronting up in the tourists’ warm-up matches; meanwhile the Lions, as is becoming increasingly the case, have collected injuries while making the best of building combinations and confidence against mostly awful opposition. Half our time has been spent pondering whether the entire concept is a dud; the other half listening with wonder to the tills ringing loudly with valuable revenue for the unions, travel agents, kit-makers and broadcasters.
And still, when the whistle blows at the touchline-tight, just-right amphitheatre of the Suncorp Stadium, there is a great chance we may witness another Brisbane belter. England found out first-hand the Wallaby ability to run sumptuous lines – yes, even within a supposed straitjacket applied by Deans – at Twickenham last November.
It only takes a front-row nudge of the imagination to anticipate the Wallabies’ brilliant backs bringing the best out of the Lions’ muscly, bustling, power-based Goliaths. The glorious complexity of the set-piece contests should be well served by the tourists’ pack, led by the hair-bear but far from harebrained Welsh prop Adam Jones, up against a Wallaby scrummage which may be formidable or soft as a rotten apple, you can never be sure.
O’Driscoll, now a venerable 34, has been sashaying with the same deft hands and peerless anticipation and vision, but a perturbing diminution of pace. Jonathan Davies stands ready to assume the great centre’s mantle. Michael Hooper has the talent to make up for Australia missing David Pocock in the crucial area of the breakdown, but Lions’ captain, Sam Warburton, is hitting his straps, as they say down under.
If the brutality of another great Test – the second in Pretoria four years ago – resurfaces, who will be dishing it out and will the officials cope? Australia’s home advantage and tendency to win tight matches make them favourites in my book. But not by much.
Despite five wins out of five on tour, much of the Lions’ form-line is as trustworthy as a snake running a game of Find the Lady. We may find that Brian O’Driscoll running in tries against an Outback XV or Jamie Heaslip sauntering past a third-rate fly-half from Wagga Wagga suddenly look light years off the pace when the full-blown Wallabies hove into view. Wales, who form the bulk of the Lions, have a terrible record against Australia – the Lions’ Welsh captain Sam Warburton has faced Australia seven times and lost the lot. The Wallabies’ results in the 12 months after the 2011 World Cup show an under-strength team forcing a fine draw with New Zealand to end the All Blacks’ run, while in other matches they lost at home to Scotland (albeit in midweek and teeming rain) and 33-6 in France. Overall in 2012 there were a lot of close-run victories which tends to mean that while Australia are beatable, they often find a way to avoid it.
The Lions have mauled their way around Brisbane with excellent results – the win over the Reds the latest example. In terms of Tests, from visits to the Exhibition Ground in 1899 and 1904, through the stopovers of 1950 (The Gabba), 1959 (Exhibition Ground) and 1966 (Lang Park) to the single-country tours of 1989 and 2001, the Lions have faced Australia in Brisbane seven times and won all. They needed dispensation to play at rugby league’s Lang Park, whereas the 1989 match was at rugby union’s Ballymore, and in 2001 the Test was at cricket’s Gabba. Next Saturday it is back to Lang Park, now Suncorp Stadium, home in these commercialised times to league, union and football. With capacity for 50,000, tight to the pitch in conditions sometimes dry, it is one of the great rugby stadiums.
There are no better examples of the two sides of the touring coin than the Lions’ two Tests in Brisbane in recent memory. In 1989 the Lions lost the first Test badly and chose to rip up their gameplan and start again. From the initial hammering in Sydney, they roared back in Brisbane. A dozen years later the boot was on the other foot, with the Australian hosts and World Cup holders “undercooked”, as Lions’ coach Graham Henry put it after his team won brilliantly at The Gabba.
Dean Richards was the Lions’ No 8 and recalled in his autobiography: “The defeat shook us up [but] it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. We were disorganised and weren’t sure what everyone’s role was meant to be. The Australians showed us up for what we were – a divided, ill-equipped squad.”
The Lions regrouped and won the “Battle of Ballymore” in which a series of fist fights was instigated by Robert Jones. The Third Test was won too, giving the Lions the series.
In 2001 the First Test kicked off hours after Matt Dawson’s column hit British breakfast tables. Its griping tone was at odds with a stunning Lions victory. Jason Robinson was the subject of worries but scorched outside Aussie Chris Latham to set the Lions on the way. The Wallabies were shocked but not shattered and bounced back to win the series.