GEORGE North’s try in the first Test against Australia was the crowning moment of a memorable Lions debut, but as the winger prepares for today’s second instalment he revealed team manager Andy Irvine left him embarrassed about the triumphant finger he wagged in Will Genia’s face.
Taking a high kick from Australia full-back Berrick Barnes in his own half, North jinked through several defenders in a breathtaking run down the left wing, then pointed at the Australia scrum-half in his wake, before crossing the line. The jet-heeled 21-year-old said he had copped a “lot of stick” from team-mates for the gesture and had apologised to Genia, one of the game’s finest scrum-halves and most respected players.
“I’ve had a few words from various people but I’ve apologised and can’t really explain why I did it,” North said on the eve of the crunch second Test at Docklands Stadium. “It was very difficult and I just got caught up in the whole emotion of a Test match and scoring my first try. Looking back, I do feel horrendous about doing it, but I will have to live with it now. I’ll have to take it on the chin. I had big words from Andy Irvine which was fun. Rugby is a gentleman’s game and that shouldn’t be involved in the game and Andy spoke to me about that afterwards. I know I was out of line in terms of sportsmanship and rugby and I feel bad about that.”
If Genia was unimpressed by the gesture, he did well to hide it yesterday, joking that he was “eating” grass at the time but might extend North the same courtesy if he scored a try and the Wallabies won.
North’s battle with Wallabies winger Israel Folau lit up a packed Lang Park in the Lions’ 23-21 win, with the former rugby league international scoring a brace of tries in a brilliant Test debut.
The first saw Folau bat away a North tackle before cantering over the line, which Lions coach Warren Gatland said had been “addressed”.
North said Folau’s rugby league experience and stint in Australian Rules football had shown itself out on the ground with his hard-running and superb aerial skills. “I was very impressed with how it all came together for him in last week’s Test,” North said. “He’s a running threat, he’s good in the air and difficult to read as well. We saw that on the weekend, we just hope he doesn’t do it again.”
Meanwhile, Rob Howley laid bare the levels of bravery and desire that will be required when the Lions go for Test series glory this morning.
The tourists are one win away from achieving what no other Lions squad has managed since South Africa 16 years ago when players like Scott Gibbs, Jeremy Guscott and Keith Wood were in their pomp. After going 1-0 up in the series last Saturday, a ferocious sense of determination exists to seal the deal today and render next week’s Sydney finale irrelevant.
Lions assistant coach Howley, though, knows from painful personal experience how quickly things can unravel. He was part of the Lions team that crushed Australia 29-13 in Brisbane 12 years ago, but they were then swamped 35-14 on Melbourne soil a week later before losing the Test series decider by six points. “This Lions jersey demands you to have no respect for your body and you must be 100 per cent fit,” Howley said. “I always talk about the ingredients of being composed and taking the opportunities. In the hurly-burly of battle, the emotional intelligence of decision-making and being accurate is what Test match football is about. The side that has been selected has Test match animals that have made decisions in games. They understand what is required. We talk about 80 games of one minute – that is the concentration level you need.
“It’s about the trust and the unity which you have in the team in attack and defence, it’s about the side that takes the opportunity. That is Test match football. The players are really looking forward to it. They have been overwhelmed by the support that has been over here, and they just want to get going.”
Howley revealed that four-time Lions tourist Brian O’Driscoll – the genial Irish centre starts his eighth Lions Test today – has played an integral part during this week’s preparations. Like Howley, O’Driscoll was part of the failed 2001 series bid Down Under. At 34, it is now or never for a player who also missed out on the spoils in 2005 (New Zealand) and 2009 (South Africa).
“If there is probably one player that deserves it more than anyone else, it is Brian O’Driscoll,” Howley added. “He has been fantastic for northern hemisphere and world rugby, but it shows just how hard it is to win a Test series. He spoke yesterday, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Brian talked about those experiences and doing everything you can between now and kick-off, and it was just the edge which made the group re-focus. And today in training they were fantastic and good to go. We are aware of the Wallabies’ strengths. It will be one hell of a Test match.
“There is an attitude to go 2-0 – that has been spoken about. Going back to what Brian said, it’s about seizing the moment and taking the opportunity. That is the goal and our mindset.”
Both sides have been forced into changes, with injuries sidelining Lions forwards Alex Corbisiero and Paul O’Connell, while Wallabies backs Barnes, Digby Ioane and Pat McCabe are all absent.
There is also a disciplinary cloud hanging over Australia captain James Horwill. Despite being cleared at a judicial hearing of stamping on Alun-Wyn Jones in the first Test, the International Rugby Board has now appealed that decision and there is huge uncertainty surrounding his availability for a possible series decider in Sydney next week. And Howley is wary of what he described as “the wounded Wallaby”. “They will come out and want to play rugby,” he said. “That’s the game they play. It is about being alert, not allowing them to take quick tap penalties. We need to be aware the whole time, and that’s what this jersey requires. They (Australia) are going to come out and play high risk, high reward.”