The Lions know it can be done – three of their coaches were members of the playing squad the last time the feat was achieved, 16 years ago in South Africa – and they understand how to do it.
Now for the hard bit. There are precious few things in rugby more dangerous than a mob of Wallabies who feel the whole world is against them, and is siding with a bunch of Poms into the bargain. They will be at their most menacing in the second Test today.
Listening to the Australian captain, James Horwill, yesterday, it became clear that if the Lions are to wrap up this series with a week to spare, they will have to mine their deepest-lying reserves of competitive spirit and bring all of it to the surface. Horwill could easily have been distracted – the International Rugby Board’s refusal to accept his acquittal on a head-stamping charge arising from last week’s opening Test in Brisbane has left him in a very deep hole – but instead, he seemed more intensely focused than ever.
“I think Australians in general like to prove people wrong when they’re discounted,” said the Queensland lock, who, together with scrum-half Will Genia, is as close to indispensable as it gets at this stage of the Wallabies’ development. “We pride ourselves on standing up when the chips are down and there are a lot of people we’re playing for here. We want to win this game for our country, for those who have worn the jersey before us, for everyone involved in this group. We’re very determined, I promise you.”
Not for the first time in recent memory – it happened here in 2001, in New Zealand in 2005 and again in Springbok country four years ago – the build-up to a Test has been distorted by an almighty rumpus over violent play. Senior IRB figures were horrified that Horwill was not suspended for his footwork on the head of the Welsh forward Alun Wyn Jones and it was no great surprise when they ordered what will in effect be a retrial. By the same yardstick, the Australians are far from convinced that next week’s hearing will be both fair and just. When rugby’s supreme governing body makes it clear what verdict it expects, what are the chances of a new judicial officer failing to deliver it?
While Horwill continued to plead his innocence – “It was a complete accident: there was no intent or malice, I had no idea that Alun was near my feet and I didn’t even know there had been an ‘incident’ until I was told about it the next morning,” he said – the Lions quickly jumped on rumours that they had pressured the IRB into reopening the case. All the same, there was a good deal of quiet satisfaction in the tourists’ ranks that, after any number of disciplinary scandals in southern climes, there would be no get-out-of-jail-free card for the host nation this time.
None of this will matter much if the Lions prevail under the Docklands Stadium roof today, although Horwill’s status will certainly come into play if the series goes to a decider in Sydney next weekend. They possess the attacking weaponry to test an untried Wallaby back division, not least because the exhilarating Welsh wing George North, in the form of his young life, has now been paired with an equally threatening wide runner in Tommy Bowe. The imponderables surround a reshaped pack, operating with a new scrum-half in Ben Youngs. Can they find a way of loading the bullets for the finishers to fire?
Injuries to the England prop Alex Corbisiero and the grand old Ireland lock Paul O’Connell – a complete star before busting his forearm in Brisbane last week and shining every bit as brightly now – have forced the head coach, Warren Gatland, into tight-five changes he had no intention of making, but the depowering of the line-out is Gatland’s work and his alone. If Horwill and Ben Mowen, the Wallabies’ impressive new blind-side flanker, make a mess of the Lions in this crucial department, the Sydney Test will become too relevant for comfort.
Rob Howley, the attack strategist who, with the scrummaging specialist Graham Rowntree and the kicking coach Neil Jenkins, played for the Lions when they triumphed in ’97, acknowledged that there had been a trade-off between the tourists’ line-out operation and their strategy at the breakdown. “While we felt the line-out went particularly well for us in Brisbane, what happened at the tackle area was a huge learning curve,” Howley said. “We’ve compromised to a certain degree because of that.”
Tom Croft’s demotion to the bench means Geoff Parling, calling the line-out shots on his first Lions Test start, must shoulder the heaviest of burdens. The Leicester man has done himself proud on this trip – his performance against Queensland Reds early in the piece was one of the best delivered by a Lions forward to date – but it is asking an awful lot of a first-time tourist to fill in for a lock as experienced as O’Connell while covering the cracks in so vital a set-piece phase.
Perhaps North, whose try in Brisbane was every bit as good as the two blinders scored by his direct opponent Israel Folau, will pull another rabbit out of the hat. The 21-year-old seemed blissfully relaxed yesterday as he looked back on the long-range strike that many hardened Lions-watchers immediately bracketed with those of Jason Robinson and Brian O’Driscoll in the same city a dozen years previously.
“We’d gone through a quick transition from attack to defence and didn’t have the numbers to do the two-passes-and-go-wide thing, so I thought I’d just run at the first Wallaby and set a ruck,” he said. “Then, it just opened up for me.”
There was a little more to it than that, if truth be told, but if North runs free from distance a second time and breaks the Australians into the bargain, the Lions will happily leave the technical analysis for another day. It could happen – the Welshman has that “force of nature” look about him – but Wallaby teams rarely allow themselves to be suckered twice. They will be terribly difficult to beat.
North sorry for pointing at Aussie Genia
George North has apologised for belittling the Wallaby scrum-half Will Genia by pointing a finger at him as he ran in his solo try in Brisbane. “I can’t explain it. It’s not who I am,” the wing said. Genia did not appear to care. “If I’d scored a try like that and we were winning, I’d have pointed too,” he remarked.
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