Robbie Deans ducks out as baiting game starts Down Under ahead of Lions tour
Some people in Australia may have dismissed the British and Irish Lions as "slabs of red meat", but Robbie Deans, the New Zealander charged with defending the Wallabies' honour against the raiders from the old country, rejects the characterisation as a filthy great slab of nonsense. "I don't know where that stuff came from," the coach said. "I have a lot of respect for these Lions. This will be a remarkable, fantastic series – the ultimate rugby experience."
Deans has no intention of playing the traditional baiting game ahead of next month's tour – or indeed during it. He is too much a creature of his own non-Wallaby rugby culture to fall prey to fast-talking distractions of the verbal kind. But there are plenty of other union folk in Australia prepared to wind up the Lions ahead of departure and they started immediately the 37-strong squad was announced on Tuesday. One Sydney newspaper referred to the Scotland wing Sean Maitland as a "kiwi discard", a comment that may have brought a wry smile to a home coach who learnt pretty much everything he knows on the far side of the Tasman.
Like his countryman Warren Gatland, the head coach of these Lions as well as their selector in chief and principal strategist, Deans expects to have virtually all his A-list players available for the big event of the rugby year. James Horwill, the Queensland lock who led Australia at the last World Cup before breaking down with a series of injuries, is back between the shafts at Super 15 level; the midfield trickster Quade Cooper is slowly playing his way back into Deans' affections after talking his way out of them last year; and the troublesome, if undeniably gifted, Kurtley Beale is close to putting his latest disciplinary excesses behind him.
"We've given up naming our captains before we gather to prepare for Test campaigns," said Deans, "but Horwill is clearly a contender. He had some pretty serious hurdles to clear before getting himself back on the field and it's good to see him playing again. The Melbourne Rebels have named Kurtley on the bench for their game this weekend, so he has obviously convinced his peers and the coaching staff that he's in the right frame of mind. As for Quade, he wants to be involved and he's playing consistently, which is great. The things he said have never been an issue from my perspective. We want personalities in our group: we want passion and vibrancy. There's no baggage with Quade."
If none of this was particularly good news for Gatland and company, there was worse to come. The form open-side flanker in the Super 15 tournament to date has been George Smith, who was in the Wallaby back row the last time the Lions toured Australia in 2001 and shows every sign of earning himself a second shot after rejoining the Canberra-based Brumbies following lucrative stints in France and Japan. At 32, he should in theory be more than satisfied with the 100 caps already in his bottom drawer. In practice, he is anything but.
"George has expressed interest in playing – he's definitely keen," confirmed Deans, who lost his best breakaway forward, David Pocock, to long-term injury and would love to see some experience underpinning the youthful promise of Michael Hooper and Liam Gill. "We have some detail to go through with the Suntory Sungoliath team in Japan and if we can do that successfully, it's a distinct possibility that he'll be involved. The most important thing is that he wants to be with us."
The coach will name a 25-man squad later this month and then add six more players a couple of weeks before the opening Test in Brisbane on 22 June. Precious few of those big-match candidates, if any, will face the Lions in the warm-up games. If Western Force, the Queensland Reds or the New South Wales Waratahs are weakened as a result, so be it. Deans intends to prepare properly for this series, and damn everyone else.
"Warren has picked a powerful squad in every way, in every meaning of the word, so we'll need our preparation time," he said, unapologetically. "The Wallabies will have played 15 rounds of Super Rugby by that point and we'll need to get the players right. As it is, we're facing the shortest preparation period we've ever had, while the Lions will have played games together."
Just as it was for Gatland in selecting the squad, the climactic Six Nations game between Wales and England in March is the benchmark for Deans as he plots his campaign. "It was brutal, that game – the intensity and the pace was relentless for 80 minutes," he said. "From our perspective, it gives us an insight into what's coming our way."
Aussie reaction: What the papers said
Gatland opts for slabs of red meat (The Sydney Morning Herald)
"Gatland has opted for red meat – large slabs of it," wrote Paul Cully, referring to, among others, Paul O'Connell and Dan Lydiate.
No need to fear these Lions (The Sydney Telegraph)
"Captain Sam Warbuton could become the rugby equivalent of Australia's Davis Cup tennis captain: a non-playing observer on the sidelines", wrote Tim Horan.
Lions draw squad from far and wide (The Sydney Telegraph)
Jamie Pandaram questioned the selection of Kiwi-born Sean Maitland and Matt Stevens, who received a two-year ban for a positive cocaine test. He wrote: "A Kiwi discard and a South African busted for cocaine walk into a Lions camp. No joke."
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