Whatever happens today, the Lions’ mob have won the battle of the fans hands down by sheer dint of the numbers if nothing else.
For those coming into Circular Quay on the ferry, Sydney looked as though it had caught a particularly virulent rash, such were the number of red Lions shirts on display. Like most of these afflictions, time should sort the problem – in this case 24 hours will do the trick because the hordes will begin the giant exodus back home from Sunday onwards.
Whether or not they depart with a spring in their step and joy in their hearts is very much in the balance, with the reputation of two Kiwi coaches equally finally poised.
Warren Gatland has done what every coach in history has ever done when subjected to overwhelming expectation and reverted to the tried and the tested. He has gone for players he knows and for players with power. The Lions were criticised for playing too little rugby in the second Test and it looks suspiciously as though Gatland intends his team to play even less today.
If he was unlucky to lose his leading turnover specialist and skipper Sam Warburton to injury, there was no luck involved in Gatland’s decision to drop his second best turnover player and co-leader on the field Brian O’Driscoll. The howls of righteous indignation from across the Irish Sea will follow the coach to his grave should the Lions fail today. Needless to say, the Wallabies have been unstinting in their praise for the outcast Irishman, with fellow veteran from the 2001 series Geroge Smith leading the tributes.
“Brian O’Driscoll is an iconic figure and an iconic player who lifts a squad,” said the flanker who is sure to have a say in the game one way or another upon his return to the Test arena three years after “retiring” from international rugby.
The underlying suggestion is, of course, that the Wallabies are mightily relived not to be facing the BOD almighty in the decider – and that may not be far from the truth. For his part, Robbie Deans has at least been consistent even if almost every Aussie you question insists that he is consistently wrong in refusing Quade Cooper an invitation to the party.
James O’Connor still looks like a full-back filling in at ten but that issue is ameliorated in part because Kurtley Beale looks like a ten filling in at full-back and the errant 15 stands at first receiver often enough once play breaks up.
Beale would be the most important Wallaby on the field if it wasn’t for the boot of Christian Leali’ifano because Deans has countered the forward threat from the Lions with six forwards of his own on the bench and just two backs, which gives some indication of the game plan he expects from the tourists.
He can only opt for a 6:2 split because the versatile Beale covers every position from 10-15.
The Wallabies received a huge boost to their morals and their morale when their own skipper James Horwill was deemed not guilty of foul play for the second time in not-so-quick succession.
The feeling in the Wallaby camp was that the IRB was pressured into referring the incident for the second time by the outrage in the British and Irish press – only to have the entire incident backfire and leave the Dublin suits looking stupid.
So the Wallabies have Horwill, Will Genia, Israel Folau and moral outrage on their side. The Lions have power aplenty in Alex Corbisiero and Leigh Halfpenny on theirs and those two should be worth something in tandem.
French referee Romain Poite is quick on at the whistle at the set scrum.
He always favours the side that is going forward and, provided Mako Vunipola remains bench-bound, that side should be the Lions.
However, an alternative narrative is equally viable, one in which the Wallabies get their multi-phase rugby going and thus dictate the tempo of the game.
Their dangerous backs then reap the rewards in the wider channels, especially in the absence of any real competition to George Smith at the breakdown.
The Lions have power and a desperation to end that long losing streak. The Wallabies have finesse and the sniff of glory in their nostrils.
For what it’s worth I reckon that the unholy trinity of Corbisiero, Poite and Halfpenny, in that exact order, will win it for the Lions. If I’m right the Sydney Opera House will enjoy a second airing of that infamous aria. All together now...”Lyyyyons....Lyyyyons....Lyyyyons...”