Jake White, one of the world's leading coaches, plans to give the Lions a bloody nose here today by guiding the highly dangerous ACT Brumbies to a famous hometown victory, but it is his views on this weekend's Test match with the Wallabies in Brisbane that will have the tourists wondering if they are about to suffer a wound of far greater gravity – possibly even a deadly one.
"If these Lions lose the first Test, they'll crumble," White predicted as Warren Gatland's injury-riddled party arrived in town from Sydney. "They've staked everything on winning in Brisbane, right from the moment they agreed to play their opening match in the heat of Hong Kong. It's make or break for them, on-field and off-field. All their synergy, all their dynamics, depends on them going one up. They're banking on it.
"And you can't underestimate the pressure on Warren, because the Lions need to win a Test series. All the romance around them will ultimately count for nothing if they keep losing, and as they're travelling to New Zealand in 2017… do you really want to play the All Blacks when you haven't won a series in 20 years?
"I think whoever wins this first Test wins the series, and we won't find out who's had the better of it in terms of preparation – the Wallabies by staying in camp or the Lions by playing matches – until we see what happens over these 80 minutes. What I do know is that the Wallabies love playing at the Suncorp Stadium. It's a fast field, a multi-phase field, that suits the way they play. When I was coaching the Springboks in '06, we lost 49-0 there. The last time the Lions played a Test in Brisbane, the Australians moved it to The Gabba. Bad call. This time, they're playing it at a ground they understand."
White went on to coach that hapless Springbok side to World Cup glory a year later, and was briefly linked with the vacant England job when Martin Johnson resigned after the subsequent global gathering in 2011. At that point, he was already with the Brumbies – a job in which he is enjoying considerable success, having turned them into the best-performing of the Australian Super 15 outfits.
Like all the other provincial sides facing the Lions on this tour, the Brumbies will be understrength. But White believes a number of his players – the full-back Jesse Mogg, the hooker Siliva Siliva and the open-side flanker Colby Fainga'a among them – will not so much be knocking on the Wallaby door by the end of the southern hemisphere season as kicking it down.
"I know the Lions are fielding a weakened side too, but it will be good for my guys to face international standard opponents," he said. "And while I don't necessarily see it as our job to affect this weekend's Test in the Wallabies' favour by winning the game – we want to win it for the rugby people here in Canberra – I'd be interested to see the effects of us landing such a blow. It would mean everything to the Brumbies, definitely."
While the tourists' medics were working overtime on the hordes of injured back-line players in an effort to restore one or two of them to fitness in time for Test selection – the centre Jamie Roberts remains a "grave doubt" and Tommy Bowe is definitely off limits, but George North and Manu Tuilagi were running yesterday, if not training seriously – White was happily turning Lions orthodoxy on its head by supporting Sir Clive Woodward's deeply controversial approach to the 2005 tour of New Zealand.
"If I was looking to win a series with the Lions, I'd do what Clive did and take 44 players in two teams – Team A and Team B – and tell the people in the second team that it was up to them to prove they were worth a place in the first team over the course of the tour," he said. "That way, you can control exactly what's going into your Test players' legs as you prepare for the matches that really matter.
"Also, you can't decide on a Tuesday who's going to play a Test on the Saturday. It doesn't work like that. Players need to know where they stand. If you look at this group, what's wrong with telling Owen Farrell right at the start that he's the second No 10 to Jonny Sexton?"
When White was reminded Woodward's Lions were whitewashed by the All Blacks on a tour widely regarded as the worst of modern times – only the 1983 trip to the same part of the world is considered by rugby historians to have rivalled it for ineptitude – he fought his corner with a passion.
"They didn't lose that series against the All Blacks in the way they did because of the number of players," he argued. "Clive came to my house in South Africa in 2005 and asked me how the New Zealanders could be beaten. I know what he was thinking. If he'd ended up picking the Test side he was planning to pick then, it would have been closer. What threw him was Wales winning a Grand Slam that year. It left him with a conundrum.
"Warren Gatland's blessing is that his Wales team have dominated Six Nations rugby in recent seasons. He knows exactly what he needs to add in order to beat the Wallabies."Reuse content