Lions aim to duck blows with Waratahs and focus on sealing Test places

Tourists will be all about performance not punch-ups today 12 years after ugly brawl

Sydney

Ronan O’Gara calls it a “pretty dark memory” while Duncan McRae, the Australian back who punched his way into the Lions bestiary with a combination that might have won him a WBC title, has long accepted that he went just a little over the top in assaulting his Irish rival.

Yes, we’re back at the Sydney Football Stadium, scene of the last really serious dust-up involving the men in red shirts, and if truth be told, there are legions of unreconstructed rugby toughs out there who are relishing the thought of it kicking off again.

Twelve years ago, McRae was sent off for firing 11 bare-knuckled shots into the prone O’Gara, thereby sparking five minutes or so of pugilistic pandemonium that were the equal of most things seen in the Wild West days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. There was fighting all over the field, to the extent that the real hard men among the Lions number that night – the Martin Johnsons and Danny Grewcocks – barely knew which scrap to join. They were spoilt for choice, the poor petals.

O’Gara is seething still. “Two lacerations under my left eye needed eight stitches, but the pain of that was nothing compared to the humiliation,” the outside-half said recently in Behind the Lions, a thoroughly entertaining book of reminiscence covering the entire history of Lions touring. “Why didn’t I try to defend myself? In the dressing room I was f***ing raging. Raging with myself. Raging with McRae. When the game was over I wanted to go into their dressing room and have a cut of him. Too late. Why didn’t I hit him when he was pucking the head off me? I don’t know.”

There are many who believe “those days are gone” – Michael Cheika, the current Waratahs coach, used that very phrase a couple of days back – and they tend to base their reasoning on the increased presence of television cameras at major professional matches. They should not shout too soon. There were plenty of cameras in the ground in 2001, but there wasn’t a broadcaster on earth who could have prevented the mayhem. Sometimes, stuff happens.

Still, the odds are heavily stacked against a rematch over the full 12 rounds. The Lions, not always the saints in a sea of sinners, are very big on discipline these days, while the Waratahs, shorn of 11 internationals thanks to Wallaby call-ups and fitness issues, have been talking up the more aesthetic parts of their game. It won’t be an exercise in horizontal pacifism, but it probably won’t be a dockyard brawl either.

According to Graham Rowntree, the assistant coach with special responsibility for the Lions’ set-piece operation, an improved line-out performance is a minimum requirement. “The Waratahs have Dave Dennis [one of the Test contenders released from Wallaby camp for this fixture] coming back in and he will bolster his side in that department,” Rowntree said. “We had a few line-out issues against the Combined Country team in Newcastle on Tuesday night, dropping three from 16. It’s what you get on a tour like this, so you take it on the chin, move on and work it out.”

He also noted that in last week’s outing against the Queensland Reds, the toughest match of the trip to date by many a long mile, the tourists failed to turn in anything resembling an 80-minute performance. “Guys really need to take their opportunities now,” Rowntree remarked, tellingly. “Not just the opportunities in matches, but also in training. Because we’re watching.”

Traditionally speaking, this is the rehearsal for the first meeting with the Wallabies next weekend. In reality, it is no such thing. Fitness willing, the Lions back division will have a different look to it in Brisbane, and there is no guarantee that today’s pack will survive en bloc the important selection discussions scheduled over the next three or four days. Like the head coach, Warren Gatland, before him, Rowntree insisted that the Test team would be picked after Tuesday’s awkward game with the ACT Brumbies in Canberra, not before.

All of which leaves things open for those mounting a late run. No one is starting later than the Irish full-back Rob Kearney, who performed strongly for the Lions in South Africa four years ago and must therefore be regarded as the man in possession of the No 15 shirt. Fully recovered from the hamstring problem that ruled him out of the first four games on this tour, the man from Dundalk will begin this one on the bench.

“If there’s one point in a four-year period at which you don’t want to pick up a niggle, it’s at the start of a Lions tour,” he said. “My timing couldn’t have been worse. When I had my scan in Hong Kong it was a real low point, because I could have been on the first flight back to Dublin. But I took a lot of solace from the fact that Warren told me: ‘If you need two weeks to get fit, take them.’ When you have that kind of clarity from the coach, you don’t have to worry too much.

“Can I push for a place in the Tests? I’d like to think so, although Leigh Halfpenny has done fantastically well and his kicking 11 out of 11 in Perth hasn’t helped me. But who knows? Things happen on tour, and they happen in a matter of seconds.”

One of Kearney’s countrymen discovered the truth of that in this very city a dozen years ago. That day, the Lions lost Lawrence Dallaglio for the tour and Neil Back for the first Test, as well as the unfortunate O’Gara. If Gatland and company could ask the sporting gods for one thing today, it would be to get the hell out of here with everybody in one piece.

Friends reunited: 2001's brutal encounter

The Lions will face the New South Wales Waratahs for the 21st time and currently lead 15-4 overall, with one draw in 1966. But it is the memory of their last meeting, in 2001, which remains most notorious.

The hosts had made their intentions plain inside the opening five seconds when Tom Bowman was yellow-carded for his forearm smash into the nose of the Lions captain, Martin Johnson. Referee Scott Young managed to keep a lid on things until the second half before all hell broke loose. Duncan McRae's brutal assault on Ronan O'Gara kicked off a series of punch-ups that led to Brendan Cannon, Cameron Blades, Phil Vickery and Danny Grewcock sent to the sin bin after the intervention of touch judge Stu Dickenson.

With McRae dismissed, a game of 13 against 12 ensued for a 10-minute period midway through the half, with the Lions ultimately prevailing 41-24.

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