There is nothing like a smooth build-up to the most important Test match since the turn of the century – and this has been nothing like a smooth build-up, for either of today's combatants at Stadium Australia. The Wallabies, shorn of their most gifted playmaker and their toughest tight forward, were in a state of advanced grumpiness yesterday; indeed, their departing coach, Rod Macqueen, stopped only marginally short of accusing the Lions of indulging in orchestrated violence. The tourists, meanwhile, were battling against another raft of debilitating fitness worries.
Will Greenwood, their first-choice inside centre until strained ankle ligaments laid him low in this same city three weeks ago, suffered a reaction to training on Thursday and is off the replacements' bench. Mark Taylor, a largely peripheral figure on this trip, has been summoned to cover the centre positions. At the same time, Iain Balshaw contracted a virus and spent the day on antibiotics. He missed a gentle eve-of-Test work-out at the Manly Oval, and although he is expected to take his place in the 22-man squad, he will hardly be a picture of health.
However, all that paled into insignificance when Austin Healey, one of the form players in the party, sat out the final training run after suffering a series of back spasms. The highly vocal and eternally flexible Leicester player is so central to the Lions' chances of recording their first back-to-back success since the early 1970s that the management could scarcely bring themselves to think about a contingency plan. "We'll talk it through, but we expect Austin to be on the pitch," said Graham Henry, the coach, without sounding terribly convincing.
Scheduled to start on the right wing, Healey is also down to cover both half-back positions; indeed, as far as the scrum-half berth is concerned, he is the only cover still standing. Should he fail to make it, and some calamity then befall Matthew Dawson, the Lions will not have a No 9 at all. Yesterday, the Irish outside-half Ronan O'Gara spent a little quality time in the position, but the prospect of an inexperienced Munsterman mixing it with George Gregan, who just happens to be the finest scrum-half on the planet, is on the grim side of ghastly.
A second, equally hazardous option suggested itself to the management last night. A number of international scrum-halves – Rupert Moon of Wales, Scott Benton of England, and, most intriguingly, Andy Nicol of Scotland – are in Sydney for the game and the temptation to place one of them on standby was obvious. Nicol played for the Lions in New Zealand eight years ago, having been summoned as a late replacement for the Welshman Robert Jones.
Today's decisive contest before the biggest audience of the tour – at least 80,000, according to Australian Rugby Union officials – would be quite testing enough for a fully fit Lions side, let alone one held together with sticking plaster. The Wallabies, world champions playing on their favourite rectangle of mud, will bid a fond farewell to Macqueen after the game, and as the captain, John Eales, said yesterday, the thought of a great coach disappearing into the sunset "gives us another reason to win". As if they needed one.
After six days of Lions' griping over the high-velocity – not to mention high-altitude – tackle by Nathan Grey that put the influential Richard Hill out of the tour, the Wallabies finally retaliated by pointing the finger at Rob Henderson and Scott Quinnell, both of whom were penalised in Melbourne for delivering late hits on Steve Larkham. "Steve plays an enormous role in our side, and we're disappointed at one or two of the things that happened to him at the Colonial Stadium," said Macqueen, of his absent outside-half. Was he insinuating that Larkham's shoulder problems were the result of deliberate rough treatment? "I'm not suggesting that at this stage," he replied, cryptically.
The Wallabies must also cope without the robust presence of David Giffin, whose engine-room partnership with Eales has been of incalculable value to Australia over the last couple of years. Giffin's questionable fitness has been apparent all tour, however, and there was always a possibility that Justin Harrison, very definitely a thorn in the tourists' side in the games against Australia A and the ACT Brumbies, would win a first cap at some stage. "Giffin is an experienced international forward," said Henry, "but we consider Harrison the best lock we've encountered. I told him after the game in Canberra that he was good enough to play Test rugby. Unfortunately, the Wallaby selectors were listening in on the conversation."
Following the unexpected collapse of what had seemed a perfectly solid set-piece operation prior to Melbourne, the Lions have invested a good deal of time and energy in sorting out their scrum and line-out. If the likes of Phil Vickery, Martin Johnson and Danny Grewcock can bruise a few Wallabies by bringing some heavy-duty muscle to bear on proceedings at close quarters – in short, by driving a few early mauls and cramping the style of the remarkable back-row prodigy George Smith – they will be in business with a vengeance. The Wallabies are a resourceful side with an enviable ability to adapt to the prevailing circumstances, but they have not summoned a world-class tight five out of thin air in the fortnight since the Brisbane Test.
Jonny Wilkinson's almost instantaneous recovery from what might have been a serious leg injury is another bonus. "I admire the young man's courage and fortitude," said Henry yesterday. "We've had a few injuries, the Australians one or two. The fact that we have Wilkinson while they are without Larkham is a balancing of the ledger." And the ledger could hardly be in a more balanced state: two Tests, one victory each, five tries apiece.
Before each of the previous contests, the talk was of tiny margins. In the first, the Lions scored 24 points without reply in their 29-13 victory; in the second, the Wallabies managed 29 in a second half that yielded the tourists only a single penalty. All of which goes to show that when sporting history is in the making, you never can tell.Reuse content