Lions hope rest can restore pride as they try to recover from body blows
Squad look to recuperate after emotional and physical cost of losing second Test
Jonathan Sexton and Conor Murray console Leigh Halfpenny after his late penalty miss during the second Test in Melbourne on Saturday. Photograph: Paul Crock/AFP/Getty Images
With five minutes to go on Saturday in Melbourne, a few days’ R&R in Noosa on the Sunshine Coast looked sublime. The Lions could have been taking in the waves of this luxurious little holiday resort and luxuriating in the warm glow of a first series win since 1997. Rather fittingly though, there was no sunshine, only rain.
Furthermore the forecast is for more of the same chilly out-of-season rain for the next two days, before the weather breaks on Wednesday. But the surprise is that after making the two-hour trek by plane to Noosa yesterday morning, the squad have had yet another travel day imposed on Thursday, two days before the third and decisive Test, rather than head to, say Bondi or Manley on the outskirts of Sydney.
Not only did the prize elude them on Saturday by the slenderest of margins in a 16-15 defeat, but suddenly they face an increasingly confident, fresher, improving and comparatively settled Wallabies knowing that a defeat will leave the Lions’ brand without a series win in 20 years when heading to the hardest southern hemisphere destination of all, New Zealand, four years hence. If not now, when?
Perhaps a couple of down days away from the madding crowds is just what they need. But their captain Sam Warburton couldn’t make the trip with the injured hamstring which forced him off in the 67th minute and has remained in Melbourne for a scan.
Given how he had performed, and how much the tenor of the game changed as Will Genia and co began exploring the holes left by the captain’s absence, his probable loss is another huge blow on top of losing Paul O’Connell. Aside from everything else these Lions are light on leaders.
At least Alex Corbisiero, Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts are fit again, and are expected to resume training with the rest of the squad on Wednesday. While the fringe defence had been upped by the call-up of Dan Lydiate, with Geoff Parling also making 14 tackles, as feared the issue of the Lions’ lack of go-forward ball from the first Test had not been addressed in selection.
In short, the return of Roberts can’t come soon enough, whether at the expense of Jonathan Davies, who looked close to a busted flush in the last 15 minutes, or, dare one say it, Brian O’Driscoll, who defended superbly but has had better days on the ball. It could even be both if the coaches decide to go with Manu Tuilagi as well, but that would surely be too risky. They might also need to O’Driscoll to captain the side.
But the Lions also need an injection of ballast up front, be it Seán O’Brien or Toby Faletau, and in this the introduction of O’Brien off the bench on Saturday made a small if belated difference. The surprise was that the Lions made so little use of their big carrying wingers up the middle – as had been a feature of their earlier tour games. Sharp though they looked, George North and Tommy Bowe were there to chase, catch and tackle, which the latter did superbly.
“You’d always put yourself in position as a winger to position yourself for the next phase. We never got to that next phase,” explained Andy Farrell, who maintained there was no lack of ambition.
“It’s a matter of putting yourself in a good enough position in the first place to play with the ambition. If we see a five-on-three five metres out from our own goal line we’re going to take that. But we didn’t see that and we actually didn’t put ourselves in position in the opposition’s half to play with some ambition because we couldn’t keep hold of the ball.”
‘Left in the bank’
Farrell maintained Noosa, where the squad sampled the sea despite the weather, was just what they needed, and some of the players were already on their laptops analysing Saturday’s defeat. The coaches have to ensure they keep plenty “left in the bank” for later in the week, while also facing a few tricky selection posers.
“You’ve got to make sure that everyone is fully fit and ready to go because you can’t carry any passengers whatsoever. That’s crucial,” said Farrell.
“Freshening up is always something you can look at. You can talk to the S&C boys and the medical boys to see whether people are flagging or not, and we can see that as coaches on the field obviously as well. You can see that in training. We’ve got to have a fully 100 per cent fit and energised team, physically and mentally, to go at the weekend and selection will definitely look at that.”
The worry must be that having invested so much emotional energy into last week’s “shot at forever” the Lions will struggle to go to the well one more time.
“Obviously we’d have liked to put it to bed yesterday but we were always going to be in it until the last week anyway,” said Farrell. “That could have played a bit of mind games in the back of people’s minds. We saw after the game emotionally what it meant to Australia, especially the captain. It meant an awful lot to them to stay in the race. How much that takes out of Australia (for this weekend) will be interesting to see.”
Once more unto the breach and all that.