Forever could be only 80 minutes away as Lions regroup for Melbourne Test

Victory in Brisbane Test comes at a price as Lions await word on Paul O’Connell (below) arm injury


Eighty minutes. Eighty minutes from completing their shot at forever. Eighty minutes from scaling their Everest. The Lions move on to Melbourne and Saturday’s second Test via tomorrow night’s game against the Rebels having played their get out of jail card last Saturday, but also mindful that 80 minutes is a long, long way away

A tad ominously, in both the 1989 series, when the Wallabies won the first Test, and 2001, when the Lions went 1-0 up in Brisbane, the beaten side came back to win the series.

As the latter was reprised on Fox Sports on Thursday and Friday, giving the squad ample ammunition to slag Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Howley, the Lions will be aware of the Wallabies’ capacity to regroup and fight for their lives.

“We were looking at that and we know all about the history of that,” said Jamie Heaslip, “what a wounded animal the Wallabies are after losing and how they will come back at us next Saturday.”

There are admittedly, a couple of key differences. The brilliant Will Genia can even surpass George Gregan’s influence but otherwise, the Wallabies are nothing like the seasoned group of ’01.

They are wounded, three backs being stretchered off and a fourth injured in a throbbing Suncorp Arena, but they had a significant and unexpected reprieve when captain James Horwill was cleared by a disciplinary hearing of stamping on the head of Alun-Wyn Jones.

In handing down his decision, Judicial Officer, Nigel Hampton QC found on the balance of probabilities, he could not find an intentional or deliberate action of stamping or trampling.

“I found that I could not reject as being implausible or improbable Horwill’s explanation that as he was driving forward with his right leg raised he was spun off balance through the impact of Lions players entering the ruck from the opposite side.”

Curious interpretation
“In an endeavour to regain his balance Horwill brought his right leg to the ground unknowing that Alun-Wyn Jones’ head was in that area, due to having his sight impeded by the presence of Michael Hooper and Tom Croft, who were beneath him and over the top of Alun- Wyn Jones. Due to these reasons I cannot uphold the citing.”

This is a decidedly curious interpretation of events to say the least, for it’s hard to see Lions players entering the ruck and throwing Horwill off balance as he brings his right foot across his left and makes contact with Jones’ head, who then pulls back and clutches himself.

The Lions will be understandably furious, for as Warren Gatland said earlier in the day he’d played in an era when rucking was part of the game, but that “the head was sacrosanct”.

Fullback Berrick Barnes (concussion), centre Adam Ashley-Cooper (shoulder), winger Digby Ioane (shoulder) and replacement centre Pat McCabe (neck), are all highly doubtful.

George Smith, a veteran from the 2001 series, has been called up to the squad with Reds centre Ben Tapuai and Brumbies full back Jesse Mogg.

Kurtley Beale – whose slip for his second late missed penalty could become the excruciating, car-crash moment of the tour – will come into the starting line-up, perhaps even at outhalf, which could allow James O’Connor to play on the wing, with Israel Folau moving to his favoured fullback.

Rob Horne or Tapuai could replace Ashley-Cooper, with Luke Morahan perhaps coming onto the wing for Ioane.

The expectation also is Christian Leali’ifano (concussion) will be fit to win his second cap and assume the goal-kicking duties after O’Connor and Beale missed 14 points between them.

“Potentially they will have a bit more fire-power with some players they might have to enter the squad,” said Warren Gatland who has, mischievously, twice speculated as to whether Quade Cooper might be called up (knowing full he won’t be).

The Lions are in relatively rude health, and have been emboldened by the return to fitness of Tommy Bowe and Manu Tuilagi, who starts against the Rebels tomorrow, while Jamie Roberts might yet feature.

They still have the Rebels game to negotiate, for which Gatland is starting six of Saturday’s bench, with Dan Lydiate and Seán O’Brien perhaps in a straight shoot-out for a place in the second Test squad.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any amount of complacency at all,” said Gatland of a week that could be career-defining, never mind tour-defining.

“I think these players are well aware they’ve got an opportunity to create their own history.”

For the Lions to be successful next Saturday and clinch a first series win since 1997, Gatland accepted the performance would need to be a little more accurate.

“Our lineout was excellent, the scrum brilliant in the first half, and then not as good in the second half.

“ A couple of guys that came off the bench were disappointed with the way the scrum went. In terms of the execution, it was a bit tough.”

“We went out there and probably played, ironically, a bit too much rugby in our own half and around halfway in the first half. But then physically, we felt in pretty good shape.

“ It’s that catch-22 – do you carry on playing rugby and try and wear the opposition down or do you be a bit smarter in the way you play and play a bit more territory?

“We probably need to look at our game management a bit and make sure we are a bit smarter in that going into next week.”

The Lions head coach re-iterated his valid concerns about Chris Pollock’s inconsistent interpretations, and would seek clarification on some of the seven penalties against the tourists at the breakdown, as well as other incidents in lob-sided 12-7 penalty count, while he is evidently happier about the prospect of Craig Joubert being in charge next Saturday.

“Craig Joubert is a very experienced referee. We’ll put last night behind us and it will probably be good for him having been an assistant referee in that match, on the sideline, to know about the pace of the game.

“I thought he was good in terms of the support he gave the referee and I’m looking forward to the number one referee in the world doing next Saturday,” he ventured, pointedly.