ACT Brumbies out to make most of free shot at Lions in Canberra
Host side not fully loaded but victory would boost coach Jake White’s chances of succeeding Robbie Deans as Wallabies head coach
The opening tour match in Perth collided with game one in the State of Origin. This one clashes directly with the Socceroos’ attempt to reach their third successive World Cup finals by beating Iraq in front of a capacity 82,000 in Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.
The Lions were welcomed by the Irish Ambassador yesterday to Canberra which, as the seat of government, is abuzz with the crisis enveloping Julia Gillard and her Labor government that is lagging 14 points behind the opposition coalition ahead of September’s general election.
The last midweek match five days before the start of a Lions Test series is usually a footnote in history and, with temperatures set to reach minus two tonight, not unreasonably, Warren Gatland has opted to prioritise next Saturday’s first Test by leaving the Lions at their most vulnerable point of the tour.
As with the Reds and the Waratahs for their part, the Brumbies are not fully loaded.
Yet they have been lurking in the long grass and would love to become the first team to topple the tourists, not least as akin to the Reds’ Ewen McKenzie, it would strengthen Jake White’s candidature to succeed Robbie Deans as Wallabies head coach.
Despite missing five of the Wallabies’ squad, and another seven injured – including David Pocock, George Smith and now scrumhalf Nic White – all but three of this starting XV cemented the Brumbies’ place atop the Super 15 standings with a 37-19 win over the Melbourne Rebels here 11 days ago.
That bonus point win secured their place in the play-offs and now they have something of a free shot at an historic first win over the Lions – who won the corresponding fixture 12 years ago with Matt Dawson’s conversion in overtime.
“When the Springboks got to the World Cup final we had 649 Test caps and that day it was the most capped Springbok team and most capped rugby union team of all time,” said White at pitchside yesterday evening.
580 Test caps
“Even though they’ve flown a guy like Shane Williams across from Japan and even though they’ve got Brad Barritt coming in late, there are still 580 Test caps there.
“We’ve got Peter Kimlin with two and Clyde (Rathbone) with 26 so we’ve got 28 Test caps in our squad. It puts things in perspective. It’s a massive task for us but maybe it’s a great way to create a bit of folklore.”
The Brumbies are on the verge of their first appearance in the Super rugby semi-finals since 2004 thanks in the main to an efficient game in which they seek to play territory through the boot from their own half, and then punch it up before going wide, along with an aggressive defence.
White, who recalled watching the successful 1974 Lions tour to South Africa as a boy and lamented not taking them on with his World Cup-winning Springboks in 2009, regards these tourists as “a really special Lions team” which is much better than four years ago.
This is a far from meaningless fixture for those Lions involved, not least the trio of Irishmen, given Rory Best captains the side, Rob Kearney will be striving to put down a marker on his first tour start and Seán O’Brien is amongst a posse of backrowers fighting for at least a place on the Test bench.
“The one chap who’s impressed me a lot, over a long time, is O’Brien,” admitted White. “He’s a fantastic player. It’s difficult to single out players because they’ve just go so much talent but one chap for me is O’Brien.
“He’d make most other teams and it’s quite ironic you talk about Tipuric and Warburton and there’s a lot of people banging on the door but a chap like him, I’ve watched him closely for a long while now and he’s definitely a chap who goes under the radar, doesn’t say much, doesn’t get much publicity but he can play rugby.”
Recalling how that ’09 series hinged on a late 50-metre penalty in the second Test by Morne Steyn, White believes this series will hinge on next Saturday’s opener. “Because God forbid for the Lions, if they lose this one it will be all hell because they have all banked on their preparation and how (if) they can almost get a head start on the Wallabies they’ll win it and the Wallabies conversely have said they’ve got to win in Brisbane because Brisbane has been a happy hunting ground for the Wallabies, not just against touring sides but against anybody.
“It’s all or nothing for Saturday; whoever wins the first Test will win the series.”
There a few shadows hanging over this game, and nothing looms larger than that first Test.
BRUMBIES: J Mogg; H Speight, T Kuridrani, A Smith, C Rathbone; M Toomua, I Prior; R Smith, S Siliva, S Sio, L Power, S Carter, S Fardy, C Faingaa, P Kimlin (capt). Replacements: J Mann-Rea, JP Smith, C Cocca, E Oosthuizen, J Smiler, M Swanepoel, R Coleman, Z Holmes.
Referee: J Garces (France).
Previous meetings: (1989) Brumbies 25 Lions 41; (2001) Brumbies 28 Lions 30.
Forecast: Lions to win.