George Gregan: I’ll probably disagree with Noddy [Lynagh]. I think it will be a really tight series that will go right down to the wire. I think the Lions will win the first Test match. It will be pretty difficult for the Wallabies to match them without having played a Test match since November’s end-of-season tour. But with the quality of the players that they’ve assembled I think they will bounce back. They’ve proved that after the last couple of years. I just can’t see it being a three-zip to either of the teams when they are pretty tightly matched, that’s for sure.
IM: Should Australia coach Robbie Deans have arranged a warm-up fixture for the Wallabies?
GG: It would have been nice but we have Super 15 now. When it was Super 12 [in 2001 when the Lions last toured Australia] the competition was over by the end of May so we had the opportunity to get together and play against a NZ Maori team with a lot of current and former All Blacks playing in it but it is still not the same as a Test match in terms of match hardening. The British and Irish Lions is just a different level. This squad are even worse because they are not going to get any match in ahead of the series other than the Super 15 contest which have seen some tough affairs, particularly the local derbies, but it does not compare with what the players are going to face in Brisbane [venue for Saturday’s first Test].
IM: The whole of Australia seems divided, so where do you stand on the Quade Cooper debate?
GG: I’ve been asked that question for a while but I would have picked him just because of his creative ability. At the same time I realise the reasons for the Wallabies and Robbie not opting for him because I think they were concerned defensively. He’s not been playing in the front line and that is a tactic the Reds have employed for a number of years. That is something that Robbie is aware of but he wants his No.10 defending in the line and consistently doing that and probably just some of the decision making. There are times when you want a more conservative approach. Quade is unique in that he sometimes does things that no one else would do and that makes him very, very dangerous. That makes him an asset to the team but for some, particularly Robbie and the Wallaby team, that can also be a liability. I would have had him in my team because he can win you a game and if you have the right people around him, particularly the combination he had with [scrum-half] Will Genia, they’ve played a lot of rugby together over the years and I think they combine very well.
IM: Do you think the decision not to pick Cooper was based on rugby or personalities?
GG: Without being privy to any of it I think he [Deans] is pragmatic and he will have looked at the balance of the team. Mine is just one of many points of view, I don’t have my finger on the pulse of what the team dynamic is. He’s looking for someone who is going to steer the team around in a more controlled manner. That’s not to say that Quade can’t do that but he has that X-factor and he has that real dangerous manner. He’ll do things that other people wouldn’t even contemplate doing and in a Test match arena that’s maybe too big a risk for Robbie to play him, hence the decision. But he knows that Quade can play Test match rugby, that’s for sure.
IM: Who will step into his shoes and be the surprise package for the Wallabies?
GG: I hear that Kurtley Beale has been running at ten in the training squad. James O’Connor has been practising there. [Inside centre] Christian Lealiifano has played a lot of rugby in the fly-half position and he creates a nice balance with whoever the No.10 will be in terms of his passing and running game and he’s a very good communicator. You almost have two playmakers in those two positions which they haven’t really had over the past couple of seasons. It’s a nice addition to the Wallaby attack, I think he’ll [Lealiifano] be very, very good in an understated fashion.
Someone who might surprise if he does start is Israel Folau, given the way he has played in the last month. For anyone in the Northern Hemisphere who hasn’t heard of him he is a guy who came from rugby league and he also played AFL [Australian Rules] in the last 12 months. He’s been playing for the Waratahs at full-back and he’s an incredible athlete. He played rugby union as a junior, he represented Australian schoolboys. He’s an incredible talent and he’s a match-winning sort of a player and I think he will have a big influence on this series.
IM: How will the Wallabies cope with the power of the Lions, especially the likes of Jamie Roberts and George North?
GG: Yes, they are big boys but it’s not the first time this Wallaby team has experienced them. They have played Wales many, many times over the last few years and they have been tight Test matches but the Wallabies have a very good record against Wales and those two play for Wales. They are used to playing against big wingers in Super Rugby. They will have lots of respect for those players but they won’t be overwhelmed or daunted by the fact that they are big strong men.
IM: The Wallabies will surely target likely Lions stand-off Jonny Sexton because if they can keep him in his box that’s half the job done.
GG: I wouldn’t say half the job done but I’d say a good part of the job done. Any time you can dampen the impact a nine/ten has then it’s going to really help your cause. Whoever plays there, Sexton or [Owen] Farrell, are very good fly-halfs and they are running the team very well in combination with their nine and the inside backs. So I think Sexton would be one guy to target but everyone targets the No.10 in rugby, it’s not like a secret.
IM: The Wallabies would presumably prefer to face Farrell than Sexton.
GG: I can’t really comment. They’ll be happy with whoever turns up in that No.10 shirt because they will have the same level of respect for both players. Obviously there are subtle differences between them. Sexton has been playing very well on this tour. I’ve been impressed with his decision-making and when he carries it to line when he dumps his inside or outside runners off. He has a very good kicking game. His whole game management has been very, very good.”
IM: How does this Wallaby squad compare with the class of 2001 who defeated the Lions two Tests to one?
GG: It is similar in a lot of ways but it probably doesn’t have the experience of the 2001 squad which had a lot of guys on the verge of retiring. I think a number of these players are on the verge of becoming quality, quality players in their own right. If they can get this series and win these types of matches it’ll be the catalyst for the team to go on to become consistent performers at international rugby. That’s probably the frustration with this Wallaby team at present. They get glimpses of the team they could be because they can beat anyone on their day but they haven’t been able to back that up with the consistency that they would like. If you are ever going to do it, the Lions series in the place. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience so they are going to be highly motivated.
IM: How much will Australia miss the experienced George Smith and David Pocock who are both injured?
GG: They would have been big names to bring to the series but maybe we wouldn’t even have been talking about George Smith if Pocock didn’t get injured. Georgie went from job sharing and maybe playing a little off the bench to starting every game and playing every game until he got himself injured. He was playing at an incredible level... well, he was playing at a George Smith level, and he would have been in that squad.
They are players you do miss but I’ve been impressed by the quality of the players coming through like Michael Hooper and Liam Gill. But Smith and Pocock are very special players and you don’t replace them easily but Gill and Hooper will do a fantastic job in that seeker [seven] position.
IM: Are you still helping coach the Brumbies?
GG: I stopped doing that because I’m on the new independent ARU board. I don’t do any more coaching because of the possible conflict of interest.
IM: Instead you went into the coffee business?
GG: My wife and I have a chain of 18 cafés and a couple of wine bars, serving the community with good quality coffee!
IM: A community service... so, it’s free?
GG: It was for the first hour when we opened. You have to make a dollar. You can’t give coffee away all your life, I’d go out of business.
IM: What else keeps you busy?
GG: I’m an HSBC rugby ambassador which is mostly centred around the sevens series and the British and Irish Lions tour.
IM: And coaching?
GG: I am actually coaching my son’s under-12 team to New Zealand in Queenstown where he will be playing against Justin Marshall’s little son so that’s will be quite funny, keep the rivalry going with our kids.
IM: Talking of Justin, what do you remember about Justin Harrison making that famous lineout steal in the deciding 2001 Test with just minutes on the clock?
GG: Justin backed himself against Jonno [2001 Lions captain Martin Johnson] and backed the fact that he was going to throw it there. As Justin said, if he hadn’t pulled it off he probably wouldn’t have played another Test match. It was one of those defining moments that you get in sport.
IM: Anything else from that 2001 series spring to mind?
GG: It was all a bit of a blur. I just remember that first Test where we were blown off the park by a white-hot Lions team. I remember Brian O’Driscoll scoring some scintillating tries and Jason Robinson standing up Chris Latham in about two metres of space which not many people do and you just knew you were playing against a highly motivated and wonderful team.
I’ve seen highlight reels of that tour and both teams used the ball, they went out to attack and that was a pretty special series to be part of. I just remember it started at a hectic pace and it never stopped. It was like that all the way up to the Justin Harrison moment and [after that] I remember having to make a try-saving tackle on Iain Balshaw. We were scrambling right at the death because the Lions were mounting another onslaught to try and win the series. It never stopped until the final whistle.
IM: And the score this time?
GG: Two-one to the Wallabies. I think it will be pretty similar to 12 years ago, it will be déjà vu, it will go right down to the wire, both teams really want to win it and both teams will play a positive attacking style.
n George Gregan is an HSBC ambassador. HSBC is proud Principal Partner to the 2013 British & Irish Lions on their tour to Australia. The Legendary Journey continues. Follow the Lions’ Legendary Journey at youtube.com/LionsHSBC