British and Irish Lions: Another Brisbane battle

Lions Brian O'Driscoll chats with Sean Maitland during the training session. Picture: PA
Lions Brian O'Driscoll chats with Sean Maitland during the training session. Picture: PA
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THE ‘Battle of Ballymore’ passed into British and Irish Lions lore a dozen years before the red ambush against the Australians in the 2001 series.

The Brisbane Test of 2013 is shaping as a battle of the breakdown – where the ball runners and tacklers collide, where the loose forwards scrap and pilfer and where the big men clean out before the backline generals order up the next phase of what is expected to be a continual bombardment of the opposing defences. For all the talk about running rugby and backline playmakers, the first Test of the series today should kick off with some brutal forward engagements.

Wallabies skipper James Horwill, who missed the 2012 international season with hamstring injuries but is back to add some size and experience to the scrum, knows it’s “very critical” to set the tone in the ferocious initial contact.

“We understand that the Lions play a very physical brand of football,” he said. “They’ve been very confrontational. It’s a big job for the guys up front to make sure we not only match that, but we take the ascendancy there.”

The Wallabies went into the last two Brisbane Tests against the Lions as favourites, and ended up losing both. In 1989, the Lions were outclassed in the opening Test in Sydney, but 
retaliated with an aggressive, hit-and-run game plan that rattled the Wallabies to win the fights and the game at Ballymore. A terrible pass from Wallabies winger David Campese on his own tryline in the third Test in Sydney helped the Lions to a come-from-behind series victory. On the next visit, the Wallabies were the reigning world champions but had to play the Brisbane Test at the Gabba cricket ground because the main rugby stadium was being renovated for the 2003 World Cup. Ireland centre Brian O’Driscoll was making his Lions debut and was surprised when the squad warmed up indoors.

When the Lions ran out to witness the sea of red around the stadium, with British and Irish fans outnumbering the locals, O’Driscoll and Co were inspired. “It generally felt that day like a home game. We ran out and literally it felt like three-quarters red,” O’Driscoll recalled. An estimated 30,000 travelling Lions supporters in the crowd “gives an extra pep in your step and gives you an added incentive when you know they are roaring you on,” he added. “It can be that extra bit of inspiration, incentive you need to have the game of your life.”

Rugby league convert Jason Robinson gave the Lions the lead with a quick try and O’Driscoll consistently shredded the Wallabies backline defence, eventually scoring a try himself as the visitors raced to an unassailable 29-3 lead just after half-time. The Wallabies scored some late consolation tries but conceded the first Test, prompting the Australian Rugby Union to start giving out free scarves and caps at the second and third Tests and urging Aussies to wear gold. The series turned on Joe Roff’s interception try in Melbourne, and Australia went on to post their first win in a series against the Lions with victories in the second and third Tests. O’Driscoll, the only player in either squad who was involved in that series, will partner Welshman Jonathan Davies in the centre today, desperate to help the Lions to a first series win since 1997. The Lions won their first five matches on this tour but the momentum was stopped when the second-string lost 14-12 to the ACT Brumbies on Tuesday. It was the Lions’ first defeat to an Australian provincial team since being shocked by Queensland in 1971.

“You have to use those situations to galvanise the side,” O’Driscoll said. “The only way to react to a defeat like that is to get out in your next performance, and that just happens to be the first Test. It is a huge opportunity for the 23 guys involved.”

The Lions’ starting XV contains eight players from head coach Warren Gatland’s Wales team, with flanker Sam Warburton as captain. Scrum-half Mike Phillips, full-back Leigh Halfpenny and winger George North are among the five Welshmen in a backline that will be directed by Irish stand-off Jonathan Sexton. After losing two props to injury, Gatland called set-piece specialist Alex Corbisiero straight into the front row to prop England team-mate and hooker Tom Youngs, giving both their Lions debuts. “The set-piece in any game is massive but it’s going to have an extra edge to it, isn’t it?” Youngs said. “We’re all really looking forward to the battle to come.”

Irish lock Paul O’Connell, the 2009 Lions captain, adds some starch in the lineouts, scrums and breakdown, while English blindside Tom Croft and Irish No 8 Jamie Heaslip join Warburton in a backrow that will be competing for possession against the Wallabies loose forward combination comprising renowned ball scavenger Michael Hooper, new cap Ben Mowen and rugged No 8 Wycliff Palu. Palu and Croft both missed training for their teams yesterday due to minor strains, but both have been cleared to play.

The Wallabies haven’t played a test since November and have James O’Connor playing only his second test as a fly-half after 36 international appearances as a full-back, centre or wing. He’ll have support from experienced scrum-half Will Genia on his inside, new cap Christian Leali’ifano at inside centre, experienced utility Berrick Barnes at full-back and rugby league convert Israel Folau making his 
Wallabies debut on the wing.

Steady rain drenched Brisbane yesterday, which usually would favour the Lions and their stronger set piece, but the forecast was for the weather to clear today and the ground should dry out quickly.

The Lions have won all seven Tests they’ve played in Brisbane, and O’Driscoll thinks they’re ready to make it eight. “I like to think that we are well prepped and pretty united as a squad,” he said. “We’re in a good place.”