British and Irish Lions 2013: 'Players needed beer and a break before the decider against Australia,' says Andy Irvine
The decisive Test takes place on Saturday
There comes a point in every Lions tour when the manager vents his spleen about something or other and, as the battered British and Irish players completed their mid-series break and contemplated a return to the training field ahead of this weekend's momentous meeting with the Wallabies in Sydney, the grand Scottish full-back of old found his subject. Andy Irvine called for nothing less than a "complete rethink" of the scrum and breakdown laws, dismissing the current situation as a lottery.
"It's just a personal view," he said, in the knowledge that the Lions tour manager's personal view carries significantly more weight than that of a Fourth XV prop at Old Muckyduckians RFC, "but the scrummage is a nightmare and the breakdown is not much better. I think that 20 or 30 per cent of the time, you could just toss a coin rather than bother with a decision. I'm not blaming the referees; I think they have an almost impossible job. But the ideal is to have the best team winning every time, and I think we have to admit that it doesn't happen every time."
Irvine stressed that he had "no qualms" with the outcomes of the two Tests to date; indeed, he thought the Wallabies had deserved their series-squaring victory in Melbourne four days ago. "They played exceptionally well, while we defended exceptionally well without being as creative in attack as we have been at other points during the tour," he remarked tellingly.
But the manager also said that, in his view, the seemingly endless discussions between the South African referee Craig Joubert and the rival front-row units before virtually every scrum in Melbourne had been something of a passion killer. Joubert's determination to keep the two packs off the floor led him to embark on what amounted to a series of tutorials ahead of engagement. Cumulatively, several minutes of playing time were lost as the players were coached in the whys and wherefores of set-piece etiquette.
The other main topic of discussion was the tourists' decision to delay their arrival in Sydney in favour of a coastal break a few hundred miles to the north. Apart from those players who needed to prove their fitness – the Wales centre Jamie Roberts and the England prop Alex Corbisiero, principally – none of the squad had set foot on a rugby field since their narrow defeat at the Docklands Stadium. Instead, they had spent two days relaxing, socialising and – yes – consuming the odd beer or three. Had this been wise, given the enormity of the game ahead?
"This is one of the biggest matches the Lions have played in the last 30 or 40 years," Irvine acknowledged, "but I have not the slightest doubt that we were right to come here. Believe me, after the second Test the players were absolutely exhausted, both physically and mentally. They badly needed to recharge their batteries. If we had our time again, we'd come back here again and again.
"One of the factors up here is that it's not Sydney. This is a lovely environment. Sydney is a big city and a concrete jungle, for all the iconic splendour of the harbour bridge and the opera house. When I think back to my time playing for the Lions, between the second and third Tests in South Africa we went on safari, and at the same point in New Zealand we went up to the Bay of Islands. What we are doing here is something very similar.
"When we came out here on a recce a year ago and checked the training grounds, we found they weren't really up to standard. But the local rugby people have worked really hard with the tourist board and put in a lot of money. The facilities are super and, to be honest, I couldn't think of a better place for the players to be."
After admitting that the loss of the tour captain, Sam Warburton, to injury was a "serious blow that we can't hide away from", Irvine went out of his way to insist that the squad would be in the correct frame of mind for the challenge ahead – a challenge of very serious proportions, given the renowned strength of the Wallaby spirit when charged with delivering a result on their own territory.
"That defeat in Melbourne… it dented the pride of the players," he said. "But we don't need sympathy from anyone. There are disappointments in life and that was one of them, but it wasn't catastrophic. These people are model professionals and I can't speak highly enough of them. Now they've had a chance to unwind in some peace and quiet, they're ready to go again."
Should the Wallabies win the series from 1-0 down, would that be catastrophic for the Lions? After all, they have not triumphed in the southern hemisphere since 1997 and, with the thankless prospect of a trip to All Black country in four years' time, failure here might condemn them to a quarter of a century of misery.
"Well, it depends," Irvine responded. "We could lose in Sydney yet play some absolutely tremendous rugby. We could score four spectacular tries and deserve to win, yet be beaten by 10 penalty goals. If they whip us by 30 points… that would be catastrophic. But I'd like to think we'll be there or thereabouts.
"There's a lot of idle chat about the Lions' future – that we have to win this series, otherwise we'll fall out of existence. Yet this tour is possibly the most successful ever in terms of interest and enjoyment and the number of supporters following us. Last weekend's Test wasn't a great game of rugby – let's be honest, both teams made mistakes – but for pure theatre it was absolutely incredible. If you ask the supporters, disappointed as they were in Melbourne, about watching the Lions, they would go back and see them in a second."
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