British and Irish Lions 2013: Lions' dragons must fire against Australia, warns Leigh Halfpenny
Full-back is wary that Welsh contingent have lost last seven matches against Wallabies
Tuesday 14 May 2013
It was in the familiar surrounds of the Vale of Glamorgan that Warren Gatland conducted his first training session as coach of the British and Irish Lions. Among the 22 players under his instruction were all 15 of the Welsh contingent, as well as coaches plucked from his own staff in Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins.
This is a squad made in Wales. It is now being trained in Wales by the man who turned the country into European rugby's force of the moment. There is one initial nagging doubt about the dyed-red master plan that Gatland began to outline to his players at the start of a week in Wales, followed by a week in Ireland and the entire squad's – the remainder are still on club duty in England and Ireland – departure for Hong Kong at the end of the month. It is simply that Wales have lost their last seven matches against Australia, this summer's opponents for the Lions' three-Test tour.
Last summer, Wales departed for Australia as Grand Slam champions and were beaten in all three Tests. Last autumn, Australia came to the Millennium Stadium and won. And Gatland has already observed, having watched the Melbourne Reds play recently, that southern hemisphere hosts, domestic and international, have a tendency to raise their games in a Lions year.
"It's a very fast game down there, very intense from the off," said Leigh Halfpenny, the Wales full-back and a favourite to start the opening Test in Brisbane on 22 June. "That's what we found from the summer, the intensity is really high and the games are really fast. The speed of the game was higher. It felt like it was end to end, back and forth, back and forth."
The solace for Gatland, who was not at the helm for Wales' tour after breaking his ankles, is to be found in the scorelines; recent matches between them have been painfully close. Wales have lost the last three by two, one and two points respectively. In the autumn it was a last-minute try from Kurtley Beale, in the third Test in Sydney it finished 20-19 and in the previous game in Melbourne Mike Harris settled it in Australia's favour with the last kick of the match.
"The last one in the autumn was pretty sickening," said Mike Phillips, whose record against Australia is played nine, lost nine. "We switched off in the last 30 seconds and that's what international rugby is all about. You have to remain focused for 80-plus minutes. They are a dangerous side with skilful players, forwards who can offload and create, and backs who can cut lines and makes holes from nothing. They are one of the most dangerous sides in the world."
Add the cream of the rest of the home nations to the outstanding side among them and that should be enough to tilt the balance – so the plan goes.
"In Test rugby you only get a couple of opportunities, especially with a side like Australia," said Halfpenny, whose 74 points in the Six Nations made him player of the tournament. "We have to take them in order to be successful. International rugby is about small margins.
"We were hugely disappointed to come away with a 3-0 loss. We came off the pitch, especially in the last two, and felt we should have won. There is frustration there that we didn't win but we can take confidence that we could have won. It's about making sure we cross that finish line and turn narrow leads into victory.
"We are familiar with a lot of the coaches and the players but for us now it is not just about Wales. It is about Wales, England, Ireland and Scotland. We are working together for one cause, making sure this badge is successful in Australia."
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