The Lions: Weakened Waratahs' fighting talk gives hope to the Lions
Super 15 side may be missing a number of Wallabies but Cheika promises full-on affair
Drew Mitchell, a 63-cap Wallaby wing and one of the few big-hitting names available to the New South Wales Waratahs for Saturday's sell-out confrontation with the British and Irish Lions at the wonderfully atmospheric Sydney Football Stadium, made himself perfectly clear. "We're not here to help the Lions and we're not concerned with the detail of their lead-in to the Test matches," he said. "That's for them to determine. We're going out there to expose some weaknesses in their armoury."
It sounded like fighting talk and it probably was, but the fact remains: the Waratahs, whose violent match against the tourists a dozen years ago might have passed for what the Australians like to call a "dockyard brawl", will be terribly light on numbers when they resume hostilities. Some of the best players in Australia earn their corn in this city – Adam Ashley-Cooper, Berrick Barnes, Benn Robinson, Michael Hooper, the much talked-about rugby league convert Israel Folau – but none of them will be here this weekend. Ten senior figures are in Wallaby camp a few hundred kilometres away on the Sunshine Coast. Another six are injured.
If Mitchell and company want to wound the tourists ahead of the Test series, there is more than one way of skinning a cat – even a cat as big as a Lion. They could go full tilt, rough them up in the forward exchanges and provoke a reaction. Equally, they could go all soft on them, as the understrength Western Force did in Perth last week. A cynic might even suggest that this is the optimum way forward from an Australian perspective.
Certainly, enough has been said about the perils of a weak fixture schedule to alarm Warren Gatland and company ahead of Saturday's game, which marks the halfway point of the 10-match tour. According to Mitchell, the latter option is a non-starter. "We've known for some time that this is how it's going to be," he remarked, referring to the personnel issues facing the Super 15 side, "and we've been able to put some combinations together in training with the situation in mind. It's not a settled team by any means, but it's full of guys who have been around a bit and are itching for an opportunity like this.
"When I look at the Lions I see a clinical, combative, highly physical side and I'm under no illusions as to what we'll be facing. But we like to be physical too: it's not in our nature to play on the back foot. The biggest thing for us will be to gain parity at the breakdown. If we can do that, we can show up some fault lines. And if the Wallabies gain something from it, that would be tremendous for Australian rugby."
As it happens, the Waratahs will be a little stronger than expected, thanks to an intervention by Bill Pulver, the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union. Pulver has agreed to make two of the state side's most gifted young players, the fly-half Bernard Foley and the scrum-half Matt Lucas, available for the game by withdrawing them from the national sevens squad preparing for the World Cup in Moscow later this month.
"I'd have liked to have had our full set of internationals available for this game," admitted the Waratahs head coach, Michael Cheika, who guided Leinster to their first Heineken Cup title in 2009, in the process working with several of this year's Lions – Brian O'Driscoll, Jonny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien.
"But fair play to Bill, he stepped in and made the call on Foley and Lucas. Foley, in particular, is central to us, because he's our playmaker. It's good that we'll have that extra zip, that touch of the X-factor. We'll play this game in a certain way. We're certainly not looking for a glorious defeat. If there's a one per cent chance of winning this game, it's up to us to take it. What we definitely need to do is put some doubt in the Lions' minds. How we do it, I don't know: on paper, we're no match for them. What we won't be able to do is just soften them up. They're tough, those blokes. The important thing from our perspective is to get into their heads."
Even though Foley and Lucas are available, Cheika has been forced to pull in some local club players. They include the Sydney University back-rower and part-time carpenter David Hickey and his clubmate, the prop Sam Talakai. Neither have made so much as a single appearance at Super 15 level.
At least Cheika intends to enjoy his shot at the Leinstermen he coached so cleverly during his time in Dublin. "I learnt a lot from that experience in terms of building a winning attitude and maybe bringing back some of the old-school virtues that have been lost in the sanitised world of professionalism," he said. "You only have to look at O'Driscoll. What is he now? Fifty-one? Fifty-two? He's still brilliant, still as strong as an ox.
"I also believe you'll see the best of Sexton on this tour. I think he's matured into an excellent footballer – the way he sets up the plays by carrying the ball in both hands and keeping the opposition on the back foot. He deserves his success because he's a competitive bugger who wants to fight his way to the top even when he's at the top. Actually, I'm disappointed that some of the Leinster blokes played in Newcastle on Tuesday. I'd have liked to get a shot on a few of them, even if it would have felt a bit weird. Whatever happens with their selection, we'll be playing a team with massive artillery. I'll tell my players: anything in red that moves, have a crack at it."
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