By Alan Dymock
WHEN ONE former Wallaby was asked whether he would be happy to be a senior Western Force player rested for today’s clash with the British and Irish Lions he responded with: “No way in Hell!”
In 2001 Jim Williams and his ACT Brumbies played the Lions in a mid-week match between the first and second Tests. They had just come off the back of a Super Rugby title two months before – the first time a side outside of New Zealand had ruled SANZAR – and they were missing their major names. They were knackered but they came close to walloping the Lions, with the game finishing 28-30.
The former Munster and Brumby back-row explained that head coach Michael Foley’s position is difficult because the Force knew the Lions would be coming for over a year and that although they have a game with the Waratahs four days later, they realistically have no shot of making any playoffs.
“There is no way I would miss the Lions game,” Williams said. “Not even if I had a game the next day.
“What a lot of people don’t appreciate is that most of the players won’t be around in 12 years. Plus, you should want to put your best team out. You should want to give the Lions a tough game because it works both ways: the Lions may be match hardened but you can wear them down.”
Williams did explain that, in the Force’s case, facing the Lions presented a challenge beyond the means of the province. While in 2001 there were only three franchises with great depth of personnel, this year there are five and playing resources are stretched across Australia. Too many players with extended or development contracts could be brought in for Lions games.
He foresees a greater challenge coming from Queensland Reds, Waratahs and Brumbies against the tourists, but he is at pains to explain that there will be inexperience on the field in the build-up matches.
What everyone wants is for the pre-Test matches to be exciting, hard fought and well supported. It is already clear that the Lions are not exactly top billing in the country yet, with the State of Origin kicking off at the same time and Australia trying to qualify for the Football World Cup, but Williams assures the rest of the planet that as soon as the Lions matches properly kick off, Australia will come to life.
Excitement is what every fan yearns for. In ’01 Williams’ Brumbies were a kick away from toppling a star-studded side.
“The conditions were perfect and I was just so impressed with the quality of footy,” he recalls. “There was running rugby and a nice open game, which the Brumbies were prepared for, and there was some animosity between Justin Harrison and Austin Healey. Nothing was staged; there was a genuine dislike.
“In that game the intensity of the Brumbies lifted, and although the Lions had the mind-set and experience to win, the quality from the province was top-class and we had a chance to win.”
For the Heineken Cup winner, mind-set will make the difference against the Lions for every Aussie team.
If the provinces become have-a-go heroes and run “all over the paddock” while adapting to the Lions pragmatic style they can hurt them, according to Williams. Every team must be physical and slow down recycled ball.
He also sees the Wallabies struggling in the first Test, much like they did when they were “touched up” by France when they last came calling. However, once Australia’s players get a taste for Test rugby again, Williams believes they can play in the right areas and win the remaining two matches to clinch the series.
It would do the Wallabies a big favour if the provinces were to soften the Lions up a bit first. The Force have promised they will, but with their selections they may fall short.