I can still picture it. A hospital waiting room in Pretoria in the hours after the Lions had lost the second and decisive Test against South Africa four years ago. There were five of us sitting in a row, still in our match kit, red shirts, all nursing injuries.
Brian O’Driscoll was concussed, Adam Jones had a dislocated shoulder, Gethin Jenkins a cracked cheekbone, Tommy Bowe had something wrong with his elbow and my wrist was gone.
We sat there, empty inside. It wasn’t the injuries, it was the result – beaten by the last kick of the game after two Tests we could, or even should, have won. It was a brutal feeling. That is an emotion and an experience I do not want to have to go through again, and I know the boys who were there in that corridor and will be out on the pitch alongside me again today do not want a repeat either.
There is another feeling too and it is one that has been there since Warren Gatland told us the team on Wednesday: privilege. It’s an absolute privilege to be playing in a game of this magnitude. It is the ultimate dream in rugby.
This is up there with any game I have played. If I take stock of the biggest ones I have played in my career I can come up with a World Cup semi-final, the Grand Slam decider last year, the game against England this year, cup finals with the Blues and the two Lions Tests against South Africa four years ago, but to play in a deciding Lions Test match is huge, just massive. All of us who will run out on to that pitch tonight are all too aware that we may well not play in a game of this magnitude again.
It is going to be some finale to some week. First up there was going on stage with the Manics back in Melbourne – I’m pretty sure they turned my guitar right down! But I don’t really care about that as it was an experience and a half. Then it was on Monday that I knew I was going to be fit. We got up to Noosa in Queensland and I did a full running session, got some miles back in my legs. It felt good and then it was a question of waiting, and waiting.
It felt like an age from Monday to Wednesday morning and when the moment came it was one of the most nerve-racking of my entire career. Ultimately, if I hadn’t been picked for this weekend I might never feature for the Lions again. The next one is four years away and you can’t look that far ahead.
This is how it happens. It’s so straightforward: there’s a team meeting, Warren stands up and reads the team out and then you get on the bus and go training. That’s it. There are a lot of different emotions flying around the room – two polar opposites for those who are involved and those who aren’t.
After training was done Brian O’Driscoll was the first guy who came up to me. “Look,” he said, “do you want to do any extra work on anything?” This from a guy who will be so disappointed – that hit home with me. He could easily have gone off and done his own thing but it really struck a chord about how it is all about the team, all about the squad and all about the Lions. For him to do that was immense, a real measure of the man. All we did was an extra bit of passing – it was a small thing to do which meant so much.
There is not much you can say to Brian about being left out. He carries a huge amount of respect wherever he goes. We spoke about the game, about our options and what we are taking into the game. He passed on what he feels happened in the first two Tests. He is a fountain of knowledge, simply a great bloke, and I have enjoyed playing alongside him on this tour and in South Africa four years ago.
Ultimately, it is a tough call to make, isn’t it? Across every position there are guys who have missed out on selection, who have come so close, and then there are guys who have missed out even getting on the tour altogether, either through selection or injury. That just helps put into perspective how much of a privileged position you are in and how much of a responsibility sits on your shoulders come tonight.
Talking of privilege, what an honour for the man we will run out behind tonight. He also happens to be my room-mate here in Sydney. I have had some good chats with Alun Wyn Jones this week. He is a great bloke – and a clever one too, being a law graduate. He is so switched on and is a man who gets a lot of respect within the squad. He is hard, puts his body on the line as well as being astute and a good talker. It is a huge honour for him and we are all behind him, every single one of us on and off the pitch.
All the rubbish that has been said and written this week about whether there is or isn’t a Welsh slant and what it means for the Lions traditions just doesn’t resonate within the squad. Warren is the coach. He picks a team he thinks will do a job come match day and there is nothing more to it than that. It is the coach’s decision – he makes the calls and he is doing it to try and win a series for the British and Irish Lions. It is black and white.
It is all about what happens on the pitch now. The key is we have to get out there and play, take our game to Australia. We cannot expect to defend for 80 minutes and hope Leigh Halfpenny picks off penalties here and there. We have to look to impose ourselves on the Australians.
With an evening kick-off we have a day to fill first, but I don’t have a problem with keeping it low-key and chilled. I like to get to the gym during the day, get my muscles activated, do some light squats or something like that. Then I’ll relax, probably see the family – my parents and my brother are out here – and then stay switched off during the day. I only like to get switched on two or three hours before the game: get some music going in the room, take a shower, then the team meeting, get on the coach, a quick Red Bull in the changing room, then I like to get out on the pitch as soon as I can, have a read of the programme, soak in the atmosphere, get a feel for the ground.
I’ll do a playlist this morning to listen to but one track that will definitely be on there is Verve’s “Lucky Man”. It’s probably my all-time favourite and tonight, when I run out in front of 83,000 here in Sydney, in front of all that red and gold, I will feel one lucky man.
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