British and Irish Lions 2013: Owen Farrell admits his mistake and warns team-mates to control their frustration
Fly-half says retaliation Down Under could prove costly as aggressor Brits is banned
It is still not completely clear what was going through Schalk Brits' mind when he tried to scramble Owen Farrell with a mistimed punch that turned into a forearm smash, but the rugby authorities were decisive enough in their thinking yesterday.
The South African hooker received a three-week ban for assaulting his young Saracens club-mate during the Lions' 59-8 victory over the Barbarians, and is at risk of missing the start of the Premiership campaign.
Steve Lewis, the judicial officer who heard the case here yesterday, may yet decide that Brits should miss Saracens' pre-season programme rather than any league matches, but the fact remains that he took a dim view of the incident that set British and Irish Lions minds whirring on Saturday. Warren Gatland, the head coach of the tour party, has seen enough hard rugby down the years to understand the reality of what faces his players over the next few weeks in Australia and does not think for a second that this will be the last haymaker thrown by an opponent.
While the coach was stressing the importance of self-restraint in the face of intimidation, Farrell was playing down the controversy as best he could. "Things happen," said the Lions outside-half. "I was trying to pull Schalk into a ruck and he reacted to that. There were no dramas and nothing came of it in the end. I try not to take a backward step when someone reacts in that way, but you can't really afford to retaliate because these are big games we're talking about and losing someone to the sin-bin would be massive. Everyone has to be disciplined."
Farrell is not renowned as a turner of the other cheek and his fire-and-ice style of rugby, in which he balances a molten temper against the coolest of approaches to goalkicking, is not guaranteed to keep him out of trouble as this highly-charged tour unfolds. But a Test series in Wallaby country is no place for a horizontal pacifist, and by refusing to be bullied by Brits and squaring up to him in the way he did, he made it clear that he intends to stand his ground.
He admitted that he found the humid conditions more than a little awkward – not least when, in attempting a long cross-field pass, he saw the ball slip from his hands and travel approximately one per cent of the intended distance. "I've never done that before and it can't have looked the best," he confessed. "But we might as well have been playing in torrential rain, it was that wet out there. Playing in Australian conditions won't seem too bad after this.
"Representing the Lions didn't really hit home until we were running out and I saw so many people in the stands wearing the shirt. It felt special to be wearing that shirt in front of them. You're given a number in your first game: I'm the 780th Lion. You can't take in too much of this kind of thing before a game because there is so much you need to be focusing on, but I took that in. It's such a privilege."
It remains to be seen what number the captain Sam Warburton will be given: it rather depends on when he completes his recovery from a knee ligament problem and finally makes the Lions debut denied him at the weekend. The back-room staff believe he is getting there – "We're ultra-cautious with these things, but he's progressing well and probably could have played against the Barbarians," said James Robson, the doctor – and that he will feature in one or other of this week's provincial games in Perth and Brisbane.
Three other injured players were close to being declared fit yesterday. Rob Kearney, the Irish full-back, was not considered for the Baa-Baas fixture because of hamstring trouble, but participated in light training before departing Hong Kong. The same went for another Irishman, the flanker Sean O'Brien, and the Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins. They had been struggling with knee and calf issues respectively.
Few of those involved on Saturday will face Western Force in two days' time. "Those were tough conditions: even though these players are outstandingly good at rehydrating themselves during a match, there was an average weight loss of around two kilograms," Robson said. "The forwards always suffer the most because they do more work. The way I try to help them is to give them an extra half-hour's lie-in by getting the backs out of bed first."
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