Andy Farrell played a very straight bat as the Lions arrived on the banks of the Hunter River for today's game against Australian rugby's version of a Country Hicks XV, but he could not help giving the Wallabies' selection policy a touch of the Matthew Hayden treatment and knocking it into the stands for six. Asked whether he was happy that the Lions would not be facing the ingenious midfield trickster Quade Cooper at the start of the Test series, he replied bluntly: "I'd have him in my side."
Cooper has been omitted, as generally expected and widely feared by his many supporters in this country, by the Wallaby coach Robbie Deans, for whom he has not played since criticising what he saw as the national team's conservative approach and describing the squad environment as "toxic".
Kurtley Beale, still under counselling for an ongoing drink problem after a spell in rehab, is safely in the Test party currently preparing at a camp on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, as is the occasionally difficult James O'Connor. It seems Deans cannot handle more than two of the "three amigos" at any one time.
Farrell, an honest type but nobody's idea of a controversialist, was happy to make his feelings known on this occasion. "Yeah, I'm pleased they haven't picked him," he commented. "He's a bloody good player. I don't know the background to all this and I don't know the ins and outs, but he can play rugby. They have a magnificent back line, as we all know, but Cooper adds something different."
It was an interesting moment: the great rugby league maestro, fast building an international reputation for himself as a union coach, could easily have avoided the issue with a neutral comment of the "I'm not here to pick the Wallaby team for them" variety. But he chose to engage with it.
Maybe it was a sign of the Lions' growing confidence, bolstered by their exhausting victory over Cooper and his Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Saturday – a match the tourists felt they might easily lose.
There is a long and dishonourable tradition of coaches praising opposition players to the high heavens for the most cynical of reasons – to kid rival selectors into picking someone they privately believe to be useless – and it would be just like the Australians, armed as they are with a sporting mindset based as much on suspicion of foreign motives as on their own deep-rooted assumption of supremacy, to wonder whether Farrell was playing the same game.
But the man from Wigan has never shown much interest in the black arts of pre-Test psychology. He prefers the less convoluted approach of telling it how it is.
So it was that he found himself smirking at questions about alleged breaches of Lions security – reports of clandestine Wallaby cameramen filming the tourists in training that had already been downplayed by his partner on the back-room staff, the head coach Warren Gatland. "We're definitely not paranoid," Farrell said, referring to a comment by Deans in which he accused the Lions of "creating their own stories".
The news Farrell really wanted to get across was that the two specialist outside-halves in the tour party – his own son Owen and the Irish No 10 Jonny Sexton, who many regard as the single most important individual in the squad as far as prospects of a Test series victory are concerned – were both on the mend after minor injury hassles. Farrell Junior picked up a "dead" leg in kicking 17 match-winning points in Brisbane while Sexton, brought off the bench for his badly stricken countryman Tommy Bowe, complained of a tightening of his troublesome hamstring muscle.
"It's in the nature of the game of rugby that people get little bumps and tweaks," Farrell said as the team took their first look at the well-appointed venue for today's contest. "Both Jonny and Owen are fine, though. We're taking all the right precautions, but there's no issue with either of them."
He also said that Rob Kearney, the Irish full-back who is now the only member of the original 37-strong party yet to take the field in anger, had made excellent progress in recovering from some hamstring hassle of his own and was in contention for a run against the New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney this weekend. "He's training fully and he's in contention," confirmed the coach.
Deans' decision to give Cooper the swerve was not a cause for nationwide celebration in Australia. Given the intense rivalry between the major union states of Queensland and New South Wales, there were doubtless those in Sydney who welcomed the coach's call and, indeed, would have felt vindicated in their opposition to one of the sharpest attacking minds in the sport when Cooper was involved in some late-night argy-bargy at a Brisbane boozery following Saturday's game.
But others, including a long-serving professional coach as knowledgeable as John Connolly, struggled to get their heads around the wilful neglect of a player of vast, if occasionally wayward gifts. All that being said, the Wallaby squad looked seriously strong when Deans applied his thumbprint to the final list yesterday.
James Horwill (left), the Queensland lock, will lead the side in the Test series, as he did at the last World Cup. He will have around him some clever prop forwards – Benn Robinson and Ben Alexander among them – who have caused England no end of grief in recent years, and some of the most accomplished backs to be found anywhere in the world, from the scrum-half Will Genia, the ultra-intelligent playmaker Berrick Barnes and the versatile Adam Ashley-Cooper to Beale and O'Connor, match-turning talents both.
Digby Ioane, the high-class Reds wing currently struggling with injury, has been retained in the squad, while the in-form Western Force back-five forward Hugh McMeniman has been drafted in up front. Of the troubled Beale, Deans said: "We know what Kurtley is capable of in this arena. His work last week during the first camp supported our contention that it was not too soon for him, from either a physical or a mental standpoint. His physical state is testament to his desire to get started again."
For the sake of the series, we must hope this is so. A fit, functioning Beale is a wonder to behold.Reuse content