Lions tour could decide the fate of Australian rugby
There is desperation in Wallaby hearts. Desperate people become reckless and dangerous
Justin Harrison clashes with the Lions’ Austin Healey in 2001. A fired-up Harrison would go on to make a lineout steal that decided the series. Photograph: Getty
The opening hours of the 2013 Lions tour revealed the polar opposite worlds that the Lions and Wallabies inhabit. The massive marketing juggernaut that is the modern “Corporation Lions”, hit Hong Kong to reap in cash by playing the Barbarians.
On Saturday I watched the Barbarians with deep sadness. Once they were the bastion of all that was unique about rugby. They were the keepers of the flame. The genius that inspired generations.
Today they have sold their once magical soul, for a few filthy quid. They put out a team that did a massive injustice to the great Barbarian players of the past, who wore the jersey with such ageless distinction.
I would rather have the Barbarian play no more than to see them behave as they did. Despite this, in Hong Kong there was a festival atmosphere. Just add beer to a rugby crowd and all is forgiven.
While the Irish and the UK economies stagnate in the vice of austerity, the Lions brand is powerful and opulent. Compared to Europe, the Australian economy is strong. Here, it is rugby that is enduring austerity.
The Lions are being feted in Hong Kong, raking in sponsorship and publicity that the debt laden ARU could only dream of.
In Australia there are no festivals. The air is heavy with the expectation of a looming battle against an immensely powerful foe for stakes of equal enormity. There is desperation in Australian hearts. Desperate people become reckless and dangerous.
Australian rugby has had many near cataclysmic extinctions. Being a minor sport in a major sporting nation, financial crisis is the normal state of affairs.
Since the 1980s, what Australian rugby has done brilliantly is to put out highly successful national teams, despite a lack of money and players.
In the 1999 Rugby World Cup, Australia had only two quality tighthead props, in Andrew Blades, the current Wallabies forwards coach, and Richard Harry. Injury to either of these two would have meant the quest for the Webb Ellis trophy was over.
As it turned out, two was all we had and all we needed.
Many years ago I sat at a rugby conference with the head of the rugby programme at the Australian Institute of Sport, Brian O’Shea. I was listening with trepidation as a New Zealand administrator listed the massive number of senior players participating in their elite rugby programmes.
My old mentor looked at me and smiled. “Don’t worry Mattie, each game the bastards can only run out 15.”
This generation of Wallaby understands that this tour may determine the long-term viability of rugby in Australia.
For Robbie Deans it is black and white. With the Ewen McKenzie lobby in full cry, unjustly, defeat will mean dismissal.
Today as the Lions walk off the plane in Perth their world changes. No more holidays in Hong Kong. Today they become the enemy. The Western Force are the weakest Australian franchises but they will be better than the embarrassment of the Barbarians. The Force have no stars, but they play honest, tough rugby. This is the first real measure of the Lions. The Lions need to win well.
The match will start at the unusual time of 6pm, to avoid clashing with the biggest sporting event of the year, the rugby league State of Origin match.
In Australia, New South Wales verses Queensland in rugby league is much bigger than the Lions. Welcome to the land of the rugby underdog. To play each week and against the Kiwis and the South Africans is to be a middleweight fighting in the heavyweight division. The bonus is, it makes you a fighter.
When the Lions last played Australia in 2001 I was in the unique position of having coached players on both teams. The world was to discover what I already knew. Brian O’Driscoll became a superstar on the back of his Lions performance in the first Test.
Opposing Brian in the Australian centre was Nathan Grey. I had the privilege of coaching Nathan at the Waratahs. Tough, talented and smart, I was not surprised to see Nathan become backs coach of the Melbourne Rebels.
I hope he will not consider me disloyal to suggest that, as wonderful as Nathan was, in 2001 Brian was better. In that series Nathan was desperate.
Before the second Test he wrote on his wrist tape “bash”. He may have been out skilled by Brian, but he was not going to be physically out gunned. In the second and third Tests Nathan found the power within himself to limit one of the greatest players of all time.
The Lions of 2001 were vastly superior to the Wallabies. Austin Healy infamously called Justin Harrison “a plank”. When “the plank” stole the last lineout of the series from Martin Johnson, Justin sealed an historic victory. The superior talent of the Lions could not fathom how they lost.
The Lions will underestimate the Wallaby desperation at their peril. There will be desperate measures for desperate times from the men in gold.
It begins and this one is war.