The propaganda campaign has served its purpose, so it is time to launch the charm offensive. And who better to charm the parakeets from the gum trees than the celebrated Wallaby coach, Rod Macqueen, with his bright Sydneysider's smile and his doctorate in sun-tanned informality?
Yesterday, Macqueen named his 22-man party for this Saturday's opening Test with the Lions in Brisbane – no shocks, no surprises, no clues to the starting line-up – before reaching for the soft soap and washing away some of the muck that has been hurled at the tourists since they first set foot in Australia a little over three weeks ago.
"It is fair to say that there have been some unsavoury comments about the Lions," he acknowledged, "but, as a squad, we have the utmost respect for their players and management. I think the only remark I've made about their tactics concerned the line-out, where I thought they were doing some illegal things early in the trip. But then, we're all guilty of that sort of thing from time to time. There are no majors, no big issues. The Wallabies have always set out to play rugby of the highest possible standard, and I'm sure the Lions have the same aim. It will be a fantastic series, and my side will have to perform better than ever before to win it."
So that's all right, then. Many of Australia's élite coaches – Mark McBain of Queensland, Bob Dwyer of New South Wales, Eddie Jones of the ACT Brumbies – may consider the Lions to be capable of pretty much anything short of mass murder, but Macqueen, by his own account, has not lost a moment's sleep fretting about illicit scrummaging, cynical ball-killing, organised brutality and the rest of it. "I haven't changed my view from day one, which is to say that I still believe the Lions to be the best prepared team to hit these shores," he insisted. "It's pretty hard for them, losing guys like Lawrence Dallaglio to injury. But they have athleticism and speed in all areas, and talented players in every position. This is one big challenge for us."
Macqueen has long been a master of this kind of situation, and the Lions will take some convincing that he did not sanction at least some of the accusatory bile that has followed the tourists from Fremantle in the west to the New South Wales coast in the east. It should be remembered that Jones, the coach's successor in waiting, made his attack with the help of the Australian Rugby Union, which circulated his opinions through an official press release. It is a classic tactic in these parts: a hale and hearty welcome, followed by a double-barrelled media assault, topped off with a heartfelt plea that common sense should be allowed to prevail.
If the Lions have any sense, they will watch every move Macqueen makes for evidence of tactical innovation. Since succeeding the more acerbic Greg Smith as Wallaby coach in the early autumn of 1997, he has pieced together an enviable 80 per cent win rate over the course of 40 Tests – formidable indeed, given the number of matches Australia now play against their two fellow members of the "Big Three", New Zealand and South Africa. He has pocketed a Tri-Nations title, hoisted the outsized hunk of silverware known as the Bledisloe Cup on more than one occasion, and guided his sports-mad nation to a second World Cup triumph. He is sharp, articulate and ruthlessly business-like when he needs to be. If he is not Prime Minister inside five years, Australian politics will be the loser.
In light of his decision to relinquish his position at the conclusion of this summer's Tri-Nations tournament, it would be entirely reasonable of Macqueen to elevate this coming Lions series to the status of a personal crusade. As John Eales, the Wallaby captain, said yesterday: "The uniqueness of the challenge is rooted in the fact that we see the Lions only once every 12 years. It is a once-in-a-career opportunity for those involved, and while the World Cup will always hold its place at the summit of the game and the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup contests are very special to us, I cannot over-emphasise the importance we place on the next three weeks."
However, Macqueen does not see it quite that way – or, if he does, he is far too cute to betray the depth of his own desire. "I really don't see the Lions as a personal thing," he said. "I see it as a team issue, and in those terms I can tell you that we have thought long and hard about this series and identified the levels we need to reach in order to win. There is a lot of pride in this Wallaby team, I'm pleased to say, and, if I take anything personally, it is the quality of attitude amongst the players with whom I work. In this squad, we measure ourselves by our own standards."
And it is one heck of a squad. Had any other rugby nation on the planet lost Tim Horan, Jason Little, Richard Harry and David Wilson, and then seen top-of-the-bill acts like Ben Tune, Stirling Mortlock and Bill Young succumb to injury, they would have been on the phone to the Samaritans. To Macqueen's credit, the Wallabies do not deal in excuses, either before or after the event. They simply assume that anyone wearing the gold jersey is good enough to do the job, and generally speaking, they are proved correct.
"We could have held Horan and the others to their contracts and included them on our tour of Europe before Christmas, but I think we laid some useful foundations by not taking that option," said Macqueen. "It was good to see blokes like George Smith [the state-of-the-art breakaway from Brumby country] and Nick Stiles [the aggressive front-rower from Queensland] shape up on a hard tour and put up their hands as Wallabies of the future. All we need to do now is establish a fourth Super 12 province. Six years ago, when everyone played club rugby, we had a base of perhaps 200 players. Now, in the professional era, we're choosing from 90, which is not enough.
"But that will be sorted in time; as we speak, the Lions are our sole concern. We have an advantage in as much as we've seen them play five matches, while they've seen us play one. But I like the look of them: Graham Henry's teams generally do the simple things well, and that always worries me. I'd far rather they were doing difficult things badly." It was a clever pay-off line from a very clever coach.
(First Test v The Lions, Brisbane, Saturday)
Backs: M Burke (NSW Waratahs), E Flatley (Queensland Reds), G Gregan (ACT Brumbies), N Grey (NSW Waratahs), D Herbert (Queensland Reds), C Latham (Queensland Reds), S Larkham (ACT Brumbies), J Roff (ACT Brumbies), A Walker (ACT Brumbies), C Whitaker (NSW Waratahs). Forwards: M Cockbain (Queensland Reds), B Darwin (ACT Brumbies), O Finegan (ACT Brumbies), J Eales (Queensland Reds, capt), M Foley (Queensland Reds), D Giffin (ACT Brumbies), T Kefu (Queensland Reds), D Lyons (NSW Waratahs), G Panoho (Queensland Reds), J Paul (ACT Brumbies), G Smith (ACT Brumbies), N Stiles (Queensland Reds).Reuse content