AUSTRALIA captain James Horwill watched the Tour de France during a sleepless night spent agonising over whether he would be permitted to lead the Wallabies in Saturday’s series decider against the British and Irish Lions.
Horwill felt “vindicated” when the International Rugby Board’s appeal against a disciplinary hearing’s decision to clear him of foul play for stamping on Wales lock Alun-Wyn Jones in the first Test was not upheld.
Independent appeal officer Graeme Mew found that only a major error during the original hearing would warrant the judgment being overturned and stressed there was sufficient evidence to reach the “not guilty” verdict.
With the series tied 1-1 ahead of Saturday’s showdown at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium, Horwill’s availability has lifted Australian spirits at a time when the Lions are mourning the loss of their captain Sam Warburton to a hamstring injury.
A relieved Horwill yesterday beamed his way through a press conference rescheduled due to the time taken by Mew to reach his verdict, but the preceding hours had been tortuous for 28-year-old lock.
“I tossed and turned during the night. I watched the Tour de France, which had a good finish, then a bit of other TV. I tried to sleep, but it was difficult,” he said. “Maybe I got one or two hours’ sleep. It’s OK though – it’s Tuesday, we have four days and I know I’ll be sleeping well tonight.
“It was difficult, you want clarity either way and the unknown was the worst part.
“I felt for the team, too. We need to be able to prepare for this game and to do that properly we needed clarity. We can now get on with it.
“You just have to trust the process, trust that the right outcome would come in the end and that’s what we did.
“The IRB were entitled to take the process they did, but I believe the right decision has been made. I know what happened, it was completely accidental and there was never any malice at all.”
The availability of Horwill – a player viewed as Australia’s emotional heartbeat – continues a seismic shift in fortunes that threatens the Lions’ hopes of a first series triumph for 16 years.
Fresh from their 16-15 victory in the second Test that has set up the Sydney decider, the Wallabies will be able to field their skipper while the tourists must replace theirs.
Warburton was outstanding at the Etihad Stadium, but his torn left hamstring means either Sean O’Brien or Justin Tipuric will start at openside, with Brian O’Driscoll the likely captain when the team is announced tomorrow. “I feel disappointed for Sam. It’s never nice for any player to get injured, not least ahead of such a game as this. It’s something you wouldn’t wish on any player,” Horwill said. “But I’ve said all along that these two teams are very evenly matched. It’s been two points, then one point and a kick at the death in both games that could have swung it the other way. Nobody has known the result until the 81st minute.”
Australia coach Robbie Deans outlined the influence that Horwill has on the Wallabies and after an epic first Test and nerve-wracking if error-strewn second, he expects the decider to also prove impossibly tense. “James is a very forthright man, a man of high integrity,” Deans said. “His work ethic is huge, he will play himself until he can’t play anymore and from a players’ perspective, that’s what you want alongside you.
“I’ve no doubt there will be surprises at the weekend. This is the end, the final whistle, there’s no coming back.
“Teams won’t be conservative, they won’t want to walk off and wonder what if.”