Buzzing Brisbane awaits Lions’ first shot at forever
If tourists are to win the series, they almost certainly have to win this opening Test
Lions Test fullback Leigh Halfpenny appears to listen intently as outhalf Jonny Sexton speaks during the captain’s run out at Churchie School in Brisbane. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
How to put this into context? “This is our shot at forever,” ventured Paul O’Connell this week, which re-invoked the immortal words of forwards coach Jim Telfer back in 1989 when he told his troops: “This is your Everest, boys.”
Yep, it really doesn’t get any bigger than this. Different and as big, yes, but bigger, no. Ian McGeechan having presented the jerseys last night, suddenly the first Test is upon us.
The Lions have only been waiting for this for four years, Australia and the Wallabies for 12, and the Oz Odyssey begins in the city where Brian O’Driscoll waltzed past Nathan Gray and Matthew Burke from his own half to announce himself on the global stage.
The invasion of the Lions’ Red Army and the speed and intensity with which the tourists hit the ground running in that first Test at the Gabba caught a team and a nation by surprise.
Forewarned is forearmed, and while the invading force is sure to swell this weekend, it’s unlikely it will be the same sea of red as when the pound was three to one with the Aussie dollar. But there’ll hardly be a supporter not bedecked in gold or red, and no less than a dozen years ago for all three seismic collisions, the sense of occasion will be epic.
Although the Lions stormed into a 29-3 lead that day, Jason Robinson scoring in the second minute and Rob Henderson amongst others who had blinders, the then World Cup holders re-grouped, as they do, and came storming back to win a magnificent series.
If the Lions are to win the series, and end a run of seven successive defeats in “live” matches, one ventures they almost certainly have to win this opener.
It’s no guarantee, but history has shown the under-cooked if fresher Wallabies are more liable to improve than the Lions.
But while the pressure to win is arguably greater on the tourists, and it’s hard to build a new team in four or five weeks while travelling via Hong Kong and crossing Australia, by rights the Lions ought also to be better prepared.
If the Lions shoot out of the blocks a la the Gabba, that will be further evidence of this. Then, they will need to maximise this advantage.
Alternatively, the Aussies could lean against the ropes and soak up the pressure, as they did in the second Test 12 years ago, and sucker-punch the Lions. In which case the tourists will find it very difficult to come back.
The Wallabies are, as Andy Farrell admitted yesterday, the hardest opponents to predict. More than most, they like to go to the centre of the pitch and play from there, splitting their attack in two, with their array of playmakers – James O’Connor, Christian Leali’ifano and Berrick Barnes calling the shots.
“The main thing about a match of this magnitude is having no lapses of concentration throughout the game,” said Farrell. They could pull any type of rabbit out of the hat at any single time – that’s what they are about – and we have to be ready for that.
“We need to take our defensive game to them and I think our attack will talk for itself.”
For all O’Connor’s footwork and gamebreaking abilities, he’s had little rugby, least of all at outhalf and at this level. The Lions have a match-winner and supreme game organiser in Jonny Sexton, who appears to be arriving for his first Lions Test at the peak of his considerable powers.