Outsmarted Lions fall short by a whisker

Henry's class of 2001 missed chances and lost psychological war to street-fighting Wallabies but still provided a tour to remember
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Subtlety is not meant to be an Australian long suit: Dame Edna, Sir Les, Kerry Packer, the Dirty Digger, Shane Warne... we are surely discussing the sophistication of the madhouse here.

Tell that to Graham Henry, a fellow Antipodean from the far side of the "ditch" who prides himself on his understanding of the Wallaby psyche. Over the course of seven weeks, from Fremantle to Manly via every union stronghold on the island continent, the world champions wounded the cream of British and Irish rugby with the delicacy of a master fencer applying the tip of his sabre to the space between the first and second ribs.

As one member of the Lions back-room team put it following last weekend's conclusive defeat at Stadium Australia: "Everything on this tour has been a battle, right down to finding a decent pitch for training. We've had to fight for every last inch of ground, off the field as well as on it. They're clever, this lot. Bloody clever." And in the end, the Wallabies were just that little bit smarter than their opponents. Rugby may look like a Saturday night streetfight, but the most effective fighters think on their feet.

The Wallabies set the agenda early in the tour when the three Super 12 provincial coaches – Mark McBain, Eddie Jones and Bob "Barbed Wire" Dwyer – engaged in a spin-doctoring campaign that was positively Mandelson-esque. They complained about the Lions' scrummaging, bemoaned their line-out tactics, bellyached about institutionalised ball-killing at the ruck and accused the visitors of naked aggression bordering on psychotic violence. And what happened come match time? The Australians scrummaged illegally, clambered all over the Lions' line-out, killed ruck ball for a pastime and, at the Sydney Football Stadium, provoked a humdinger of a fight that left Ronan O'Gara looking like Robert de Niro in Raging Bull and saw "Standing Room Only" signs hanging on the door of the sin-bin.

Then, in the Melbourne Test, the Wallabies attacked the Lions... at the scrummage, of all places. They even shoved the tourists off their own ball and scored a match-winning try as a direct consequence. It was the tactic of a great side, albeit one in transition. It was also the tactic of a side well versed in the cerebral arts of brinksmanship, one-upmanship and every other psychological "ship" you care to name. John Eales may look like every mother's son, but you do not get to be as good as him without a hard edge.

In some senses, this was the tour of wasted chances, of promise betrayed. The Wallabies were in the early stages of their World Cup cycle, and had not identified their optimum front row and midfield combinations. They were without three first-choice players in Ben Tune, Stirling Mortlock and Bill Young, and lost three more – Steven Larkham, Jeremy Paul and David Giffin – during the series. They were under-cooked: one tough work-out against the New Zealand Maori, as opposed to the Lions' six-match programme leading into the first Test.

They had also forfeited a degree of home advantage by playing crucial matches at The Gabba in Brisbane and the Colonial Stadium in Aussie Rules-obsessed Melbourne. The joke in Australian rugby union circles? "We've adopted the missionary position for this tour, and we might end up flat on our backs."

At the same time, the Lions management made significant errors. They allowed injured players, notably Lawrence Dallaglio and Mike Catt, to board the plane – a decision that placed an unfair squeeze on accomplished, able-bodied tourists like Colin Charvis and left them kicking their hotel doors in frustration.

They transmitted every wrong signal in the book following the defeat by Australia A in Gosford: Henry's brutal and embarrassingly public pronouncement that he would now concentrate all his efforts on the Test side cut at least a third of the party adrift and left them craving an early flight home.

They tinkered with the back row after the famous victory at The Gabba and emasculated their own line-out as a result. They decided against summoning a fresh scrum-half following Rob Howley's injury in Melbourne, and ended up combing the bars of Sydney in a frantic search for the former Scotland captain Andy Nicol.

Yet on the field, the Lions hit more right notes than wrong ones. If their first-half performance against Queensland bordered on the sublime, their return from the dead in the electrifying contest with the ACT Brumbies in Canberra was something else again. That Tuesday night at the Bruce Stadium deserves an honoured place in Lions lore. If only Austin Healey had settled for playing a game as great as the one he delivered in the final midweek match, and not tried to talk an even greater one via his newspaper column.

This all-court extravagance was not restricted to the provincial games, as happened in South Africa four years ago. The first 60 minutes of the Brisbane Test gave the Wallabies a wake-up call of such multi-decibel volume that they might have been sleeping with Big Ben next to their ear. They were shaken in the first 40 in Melbourne, too, and it will always be argued by some that Dafydd James' failure to send Jason Robinson in under the posts in the early minutes of the game cost the Lions the series. Certainly, the Wallabies would have been on one knee had the tourists seized that particular moment.

However, it is fatuous to isolate any one incident – James's lack of vision, Jonny Wilkinson's mis-directed pass to Joe Roff at the start of the second half at the Colonial Stadium, Justin Harrison's line-out steal in the closing minutes of the final Test – and insist that the series was won and lost there, and nowhere else. Had the try been scored, the pass gone to hand, the throw been claimed by Martin Johnson rather than a rookie Wallaby on an adrenalin rush, the subsequent patterns of play would have been different.

What we can say is that the Lions, drawn from four very different rugby communities and moulded into a single entity in the space of two months, competed with the world champions and made them sweat. The 2001 vintage gave 20,000 supporters a song worth singing, even if the final note was lost on the Sydney breeze. Roll on New Zealand, 2005.

THREE LIONS WHO ROARED AND THREE WHO CHOKED IN AUSTRALIA

The Graduates

RICHARD HILL

Hill's mastery of the back-row arts made him the most complete forward on either side – no mean feat, considering the presence of Wood and Johnson in red shirts, and Eales and Smith in gold. One of Graham Henry's "dedicated professionals" and a self-confessed video game obsessive, Hill cultivates the image of a first-class bore. There is nothing boring about a player who produces world-class performances on both blind and open sides, and could do something similar at No 8, if required.

BRIAN O'DRISCOLL

"O'Driscoll at full-back!" screamed the early headlines. "Keep him there!" screamed the Wallabies. The Lions' positional experimentation in Western Australia made for an interesting aside – well, something had to be done to capture the imagination in advance of a 100-point slaughter – but, when the business end of the tour arrived, the Irishman was back in midfield, where he will always belong. His try at The Gabba was worth the flight money, the beer money and the ticket money. Sensational.

MARTIN CORRY

Three questions for you. Why was the Leicester loose forward not picked in the original party? Why was he omitted from the second Test starting line-up, having played a blinder in the first? Why does he persistently fail to give it the full clatter with England? Clive Woodward can address the last issue, but the first two are in Graham Henry's lap. Corry's tackling, dependability in the line-out, dark-hued aggression and sheer vitality gave the Lions an extra something they had attempted to do without.

The Drop-outs

SCOTT MURRAY

What in the name of all that is holy happened to the best and brightest line-out burglar in European rugby? Too quiet by half in the opening fortnight of the trip, Murray was skinned alive by Tom Bowman and Justin Harrison during the defeat by Australia A in Gosford and disappeared more completely than Lord Lucan. The second row contest was meant to be the hottest of the tour, with Murray favoured to break up the Johnson-Grewcock partnership. In the event, he barely broke sweat.

NEIL JENKINS

The Ginger Monster's family surfaced in Melbourne before the second Test, which was the best thing that happened to the Welshman all trip. The phrase "a tour too far" was being uttered as early as the second week, and Jenkins certainly looked off his game against the Queensland President's XV in Townsville. By the time the serious matches arrived, Austin Healey was considered the understudy to Jonny Wilkinson at outside-half, which at least gave the Leicester Lip something positive to write about.

IAIN BALSHAW

No openings, no confidence, no fun. Balshaw touched down in Australia with a reputation as the northern hemisphere's answer to Christian Cullen, but he rarely showed up at the starting gate. In part, others were to blame: the inside backs struggled to play him into the wide channels he exploited so ruthlessly during the Six Nations. There again, Balshaw did not help himself. His defensive work was scratchy, his kicking game shoddy, his sharp angles from deep non-existent. An opportunity missed.

LIONS 2001 RECORD

8 June: v Western Australia (Perth) won 116-10

12 June: Queensland President's XV (Townsville) won 83-6

16 June: Queensland Reds (Brisbane) won 42-8

19 June: Australia A (Gosford) lost 25-28

23 June: New South Wales Waratahs (Sydney) won 41-24

26 June: New South Wales Country (Coffs Harbour) won 46-3

30 June: AUSTRALIA (Brisbane) won 29-13

3 July: ACT Brumbies (Canberra) won 30-28

7 July: AUSTRALIA (Melbourne) lost 14-35

14 July: AUSTRALIA (Sydney) lost 23-29

Total points scored: 449

Total points conceded: 184

Leading points-scorers: 72: Jonny Wilkinson; 50: Jason Robinson; 32: Neil Jenkins; 26: Ronan O'Gara; 21: Matt Dawson

Leading try-scorers: 10: Jason Robinson. 4: Austin Healey, Rob Henderson, Dan Luger, Brian O'Driscoll, Scott Quinnell. 3: Neil Back, Colin Charvis, Dafydd James

Most appearances (starts only): 6: Martin Corry, Danny Grewcock, Dafydd James, Brian O'Driscoll, Scott Quinnell, Jason Robinson, Phil Vickery, Keith Wood. 5: Neil Back, Rob Henderson, Martin Johnson, Matt Perry, Tom Smith, Jonny Wilkinson

Most appearances (as substitute): 5: Jason Leonard. 4: Iain Balshaw, Colin Charvis

Comments