The series stands at one Test apiece but in the momentum battle between the team leaders it is more clear-cut: James Horwill, the Wallaby captain, is beating the Lions 2-0. It could be the winning advantage all Australia craves: Horwill, acquitted a second time of stamping on the head of the Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones 11 days ago, will be on the field in Sydney for this Saturday’s decider. Paul O’Connell and Sam Warburton most definitely will not.
After the Brisbane Test, during which Horwill left Jones in need of stitches in an eye wound, the independent judicial officer, Nigel Hampton QC, found in favour of the Queenslander just as a busted arm was depriving the Lions of O’Connell, the Irish forward who had led them in South Africa in 2009 and had re-emerged as a key figure in this current squad.
The independent appeal officer, Graeme Mew, aligned himself with Hampton’s reading of the case in rejecting an International Rugby Board appeal against the reprieve. A few hours earlier, the Lions had seen Warburton, their skipper, ruled out of the Sydney game with a hamstring injury.
These shifts in fortune towards the Wallabies may well prove to be the tipping point in a series that has so far seen two last-kick finishes in as many Tests. Along with Will Genia, the outstanding player in the series to date, Horwill (a close second to the scrum-half) is an irreplaceable figure in the Australia side at this point in their development.
As Stephen Larkham, the World Cup-winning outside-half from Canberra who tasted victory over the Lions in 2001, pointed out yesterday: “We have no one else like him in terms of what he brings to a team. He’s an unbelievable leader with a work rate second to none. We’re so lucky to have him for this Test.”
Larkham went out of his way to stress the “lucky” bit, for he was bewildered as any of the Lions when Horwill escaped a ban for his footwork on the Jones bonce – and then escaped it again. “ I’m extremely surprised,” he commented in an interview with the BBC. “When it was referred back by the IRB, I thought the verdict would definitely be overturned. I’ve seen the incident and it was pretty bad, pretty obvious. And I didn’t think it was accidental. But Horwill is not normally a dirty player. Maybe his good record counted for something.”
Leaving aside Larkham’s honest, if distinctly unpatriotic take on the affair, the protagonists were wholly predictable in their responses to Mew’s decision. Horwill confessed to having had a sleepless night after the appeal hearing and pronounced himself “ very relieved”, adding: “I feel vindicated. I know what happened and I’m glad the right result came in the end. I love what I do and it means a hell of a lot to me to represent my country in what is probably our biggest game since the 2003 World Cup final.”
Andy Irvine, the Lions manager, could not help reinforcing the point that Horwill’s stamp did “not look very clever” but also drew a line. “It’s no great shakes as far as we’re concerned,” said the Scot. “I saw a lot worse in my time playing the game. It was never going to be a case of slapping Horwill’s wrists; he either had to be found guilty or innocent and it was always likely to be marginal. It wasn’t one of those cases were 95 per cent of people saw it one way and only five per cent the other.”
Meanwhile, the IRB said it was satisfied with its approach to the incident and congratulated the Australian union on its management of the process. All the same, this was an ill wind that blew no one any good. Had Horwill been convicted on the basis of the IRB’s appeal, there would have been the whiff of the kangaroo court about it – deeply inappropriate, despite the wildlife to be found in this country. Now he has been acquitted twice over, the old phrase about booze-ups and breweries springs to mind.
Try as they might – and they are trying desperately hard, bless them – the game’s governing classes may never come up with a disciplinary system that works.