The British and Irish Lions have been crunching the numbers all week in an effort to make this tour add up to something more than yet another lost opportunity, but if they finish on the wrong side of the scoreboard arithmetic today, one number in particular – the unluckiest number of all, according to the superstitious – will surely come back to haunt them. No Brian O’Driscoll in the red 13 shirt? It seems a hell of a call, even now.
“That was Wednesday’s news. We’ve moved on.” So said the tourists’ scrum coach, Graham Rowntree, yesterday in a determined effort to put the story to bed. He would have been happier talking about different figures entirely: the ones revealing that the Wallabies have lost five of the last six matches staged at the huge Olympic Stadium on the edge of town; that the Lions have won nine of their Tests in this city while their hosts have prevailed on only four occasions; that the men from the British Isles have nailed three-quarters of the international games they have played on Australian territory since 1899.
He might even have pointed to his pack’s “officially ratified” 93 per cent success rate at the line-out in Melbourne last weekend had that particular calculation not flown directly in the face of reality and confirmed the old saying about lies, damned lies and statistics. The Lions are still vulnerable in this crucial area – quite why they feel they can do without the ultra-reliable athleticism of Tom Croft for the second Test running is a mystery that passeth all understanding – and if the possession they obtain today is as unusable as it was seven days ago, the precise make-up of the midfield will border on the irrelevant. They could field Darth Vader and Gandalf at 12 and 13 and still lose.
As the big Ulster wing Tommy Bowe acknowledged yesterday, the Lions have not played much in the way of effective attacking rugby in the series to date. “There were two individual tries scored in the Brisbane Test; in the Melbourne Test we didn’t really get any ball,” he said with refreshing candour, adding that together with his fellow wide man George North, he was hoping against hope that his constructive involvement would be far greater on this occasion.
That will depend, as it always depends, on events at the coalface, where the raw material of winning rugby, the treasure known as “primary possession”, is fought over and secured. The Lions have not admitted as much in public, but they were profoundly angered by the South African official Craig Joubert’s handling of the scrum in Melbourne, where the inexperienced England prop Mako Vunipola conceded three penalties, two of which were kicked by the super-accurate Wallaby marksman Christian Leali’ifano.
They have every right to expect today’s referee, Romain Poite of France, to be more to their liking – he is, after all, renowned throughout the union-playing world as a connoisseur of the dark arts of the set piece – and Alex Corbisiero’s return at loose-head prop means the front row will be better equipped technically than it was last time out. But if an improvement at the scrum is nullified by a wonky line-out, the Wallabies will happily settle for first-phase parity.
Bowe, anything but overworked on this tour after missing three weeks of rugby with a busted hand and looking a good deal fresher than most of his colleagues, argued that the Lions were every bit as fit as the Australians and that their sense of “desperation” – a much-used word among the tourists yesterday – would give them a competitive edge. But the Wallabies finished much the stronger in both previous Tests and have convinced themselves that if the decider is played at a high tempo, they will be the ones to benefit.
Will Genia, by common consent the outstanding individual player of the series thus far, rammed the point home yesterday when he made a somewhat unfavourable comparison between the Lions and the world champions of New Zealand.
“When you play the All Blacks, it’s really fast. Everything is speeded up, there are no stoppages, you can’t catch your breath,” the Wallaby half-back remarked. “The Lions enjoy the physical side of things. They like to play stop-start, get ascendancy at the set piece and take three points wherever they can.” Ouch.
And so we head into the abstractions, into the psychology of this momentous contest and the history underpinning it. The tourists have been wondering aloud whether the Australians can possibly revisit the emotional heights they scaled in Melbourne, where their late, series-saving victory reduced their influential captain, James Horwill, to tears. For all anyone knows right now, they may be proved right. But Genia made it clear in his eve-of-Test comments that the prospect of securing a once-in-a-lifetime victory over the Lions was just about as emotionally supercharged as it gets.
As for the lessons of the past, they are not especially reassuring from the visitors’ perspective.
Only twice in 120-odd years have the Lions claimed a series victory in the southern hemisphere by winning the final Test, and only once have they gone on to claim the spoils after letting slip an early advantage. That was in 1971, when Carwyn James’ party, perhaps the greatest and certainly the most revered red-shirted collective, beat New Zealand over four matches by edging the first, running away with the third and drawing the last. It would be stretching a point way past its natural elasticity to suggest that this current squad, for all its merits of commitment and togetherness, should be mentioned in the same breath.
If the Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones, not so much an unlikely captain at the start of the tour as an unimaginable one, leads the visitors to a 16-year high today, the O’Driscoll affair will be no more than a footnote in the annals. If the Lions lose, as the bookmakers now think they will, we can expect the affair to rumble on, deep into the new season and possibly beyond. But games of this magnitude are rarely, if ever, decided in the No 13 channel. The numbers that really count are to be found elsewhere.
Gatland’s ‘comfort zone’ players
During his time in Wales, the Lions coach has come to trust a small number of individuals to deliver his trademark style of highly physical, unremittingly punishing rugby, known as “Warrenball”. The 6ft 4in centre is first among them with his size, power and gain-line expertise.
The belligerent scrum-half made his international debut five years before Roberts and can be seen as his prototype: bigger, stronger, more direct than most opposite numbers and a route-one specialist. When he runs with the ball, the phrase “cosh and carry” springs to mind.
Awarded a first Test start at hooker because Tom Youngs of England has just about run himself into the ground, the 17st forward from Neath is another substantial specimen who likes nothing better than to rumble headlong into the heavy traffic. Again, he’s the biggest Lion in his position.
A couple of inches shorter but a few pounds heavier than his tour rival, the Irish No 8 Jamie Heaslip, the Tonga-born forward plays a tighter, more abrasive style of rugby well suited to Gatland’s grand victory plan. Expect him to smash some Wallabies, with or without the ball.
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