By Alan Dymock
HEADING TOWARDS the first Test, the British and Irish Lions have an encouraging win against the Waratahs and a lacklustre loss against the Brumbies as inspiration for the first shot at the Wallabies.
The loss will unsettle Warren Gatland like a dodgy shrimp off the barbie, but it was a limp performance from a quickly-assembled team boasting a handful of players likely to feature in the first Test. It was an afterthought of a game with an underperforming pack, but Gatland will be thankful there were no more injuries.
Did it affect the Lions’ chances on Saturday at the Suncorp? No, even though it was another swift kick in the lower-pelt for some in the pride.
History has shown that a loss can help motivate tourists heading into a first Test. It happened in 2001 and, in fact, there are more than a few parallels to be drawn between this tour and the trip 12 years ago, before the big one in Queensland.
In 2001 the Lions had a number of injuries before the opening Test of the series, with winger Tyrone Howe, centre Scott Gibbs, hooker Gordon Bulloch and flankers Martin Corry and David Wallace all playing a part coming into the Gabba.
The team had a loss before hand, being downed 28-25 by Australia ‘A’. After that game head coach Graham Henry bemoaned the team’s clumsy shuffling at the lineouts, saying: “Our lineout was not acceptable. We lacked basic sharpnessand a lot of negatives came out of the game. We need to put some more time into our lineout work, which needs to be quality time. …Reality has really set in.”
The build-up by the Wallabies that year also had some tiny similarities with the 2013 incarnation.
Unlike today’s team, more than a few Wallaby players were allowed to play the Lions in the lead-in, but the team itself played almost no rugby with one game against the New Zealand Maori just a day after the Lions’ first game ended 41-29 in their favour. Also, while it was not until the second Test, the Wallabies also decided to hand out free gold scarves to combat the overwhelming red that hit them in the opening game. This year the Wallabies are getting their retaliation in early, handing out free gold safari hats at all three Test venues.
However, it is in personnel changes and Test selection that there could be more than a few omens before the 2013 series starts.
In 2001 an in-form centre was awarded a spot alongside Brian O’Driscoll after another player in his position limped out with injury, as Rob Henderson was assured a spot with Will Greenwood suffering a damaged ankle ligament. A full-back you could set your watch by was given a starter’s jersey, with Matt Perry the only real candidate for selection.
There was also room on the wing for a man who had benefited from a previously-impressive colleague getting hurt, with Dafydd James picking up after Dan Luger was hobbled, and a winger who was turning Wallaby pockets inside-out, as Jason Robinson broke out much like George North has and hopefully will continue to do.
On the opposite side of the ball, Australia picked a maverick full-back few had expected to see, with Chris Latham selected ahead of the ever-reliable Matt Burke. There were a few interesting swaps and a new cap in the front five, but that day there were several experienced performers and tactical choices, with Nathan Grey starting at inside centre ahead of proven helmsman Elton Flatley.
That day the Wallabies were overwhelmed.
It would perhaps be indecorous to suggest that history will repeat itself or that the knocks the Lions have experience will actually make them stronger. Gatland does not seem the type to pick teams because of omens or place his faith in signs, but he has picked in a similar vain as Graham Henry heading into that first test.