The last time the British and Irish Lions lost to a southern hemisphere provincial side was in 1997, which also happens to be the last time they won a Test series.
If they finish second to a powerful Queensland Reds side in front of a 50,000-plus audience today – a distinct possibility, given the nine Wallabies in the home ranks and the near-delirious support they can expect to receive – it might be a happy omen. There again, it might be a calamity.
Successful Lions tours (not that there have been too many of them) are all about momentum: early setbacks against super-motivated bands of locals can generate serious levels of internal strife, as the 1983 and 1993 vintages discovered in New Zealand. As the Reds will provide the first serious opposition on this tour – in the heat of Hong Kong, the Barbarians managed to be undercooked and boiled alive at the same time; in Perth, a below-strength Western Force were anything but forceful – the last thing the visitors need is a taste of defeat in Brisbane, especially as they must return to this same city in a fortnight for the opening Test.
But the Reds are dangerous, no doubt about it. “I’ve never been involved with a Queensland side that has taken the field with anything other than a winning mindset,” said Ewen McKenzie, the World Cup-winning Wallaby prop who coaches the home team and looks every inch a national coach in waiting. “I love the challenge this kind of game represents – a game that gives you a one-off opportunity to do something other people can’t do or haven’t done. We’ve grabbed a few trinkets along the way and done everything we can to make some small pieces of history. This is another chance for us to do exactly that.”
Unwittingly or otherwise, McKenzie is at the heart of the fractious politics currently bedevilling the Australian game. One fellow provincial coach said yesterday that Robbie Deans, the current Wallaby boss, would be “toast” if the Lions ran out comfortable winners in the Test series, and that “everyone knows Ewen will be a major contender for the job if and when it falls vacant”. A provincial triumph over the tourists today – the first since the Blue Bulls of Pretoria did for Martin Johnson’s side 16 years ago – will only intensify the pressure on Deans, who has more than his share of critics in this country.
Happily for the tourists, the burden of their own pressure was eased significantly when Cian Healy, the Irish prop who suffered a tour-ending ankle injury in the game against the Force, was cleared of a charge of biting arising from an incident earlier in the contest. Andy Irvine, the Lions manager, described the decision as “important for the integrity of both the player and the squad”. Had the finding of the judicial officer Nigel Hampton QC been different, the consequences would have been dire for the accused and extremely disruptive for the party as a whole.
“I’m very relieved,” said Healy, who was cited for allegedly biting the arm of the Western Force half-back Brett Sheehan. “I was disappointed that there was a citing in the first place. I always maintained that nothing happened and that I had done nothing illegal. The opposition player’s arm hit me. It was as simple as that. The support I’ve had from the management and all the lads has been wonderful. I’m glad it’s over.”
Healy had his injury scanned yesterday and the results showed extensive ligament damage. He will leave Australia over the next 48 hours. There was also renewed concern over the senior loose-head prop in the party, Gethin Jenkins of Wales, whose dodgy calf muscle flared up again and ruled him out of today’s game.
Mako Vunipola of England, one of the stars of the show to date, will face the Reds while Ryan Grant of Scotland will fly in as front-row cover. He joins another red-rose prop, Alex Corbisiero, as an added extra.
There was also news from Jonny Wilkinson land. The people’s choice for an outside-half spot with the Lions announced that he had undergone minor surgery to correct a groin problem and would be resting up for several weeks. As a consequence, there is no possibility of him joining this tour in the event of injury to either Jonathan Sexton or Owen Farrell, the two selected No 10s – a decisive rebuff to the rumour-mongers and conspiracy theorists who believed until yesterday that Warren Gatland’s decision not to pick Wilkinson in the first place was part of a grand plan to wrong-foot the Wallabies.
The Healy and Wilkinson developments made it easier for Gatland and his coaching colleagues to concentrate fully on beating the Reds, who won the Super 15 title as recently as two years ago and have twice beaten the Lions on previous tours – in 1899 and again in 1971, the latter triumph qualifying as one of the more remarkable feats in their history, given that John Dawes’s side would go on to complete a first, and so far only, series victory in New Zealand.
A Lions win here would be no mean achievement, for this will be the third radically different line-up to take the field in as many matches. “I wrote down what I thought would be their side on Monday and ended up with four wrong,” McKenzie said. “I’m surprised to see one or two players backing up from Wednesday, but they’re following a pathway through the opening games and maybe we can get something from that. Individually, the Lions need to show what they have, so there could be some space for us to operate in and apply some pressure.”
Three key battles: Where the game could be won and lost
Ben Tapuai v Manu Tuilagi
Tuilagi is back in his favourite position of outside centre after a midweek run in the inside position and a really big performance today might put some heat on Brian O’Driscoll ahead of the discussions about Test combinations. But his direct opponent is no pushover: Tapuai has seven Wallaby caps in his locker.
Quade Cooper v Owen Farrell
The main event of the evening, as they say in the boxing world. Cooper has this one last shot at breaking into the Wallaby squad for the Tests while Farrell is seeking redemption after a difficult first outing. Neither man is a shrinking violet, so there could be plenty of fun and games between the fly-halves.
Beau Robinson v Sam Warburton
Robinson has a Test cap to his name but, more importantly, he is just the kind of hardened Super 15 operative to give Warburton a proper work-out in his first appearance as captain. The Lions are hoping and praying that the Welsh flanker comes through after a frustrating spell of injury.
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