Australia’s rugby series against the British and Irish Lions, billed as 12 years in the making, boils down to 80 minutes today when the teams meet in the decider.
The Wallabies tied the three-match contest 1-1 with a one-point victory after the Lions won the opener 23-21. Those matches featured late penalty misses that would have reversed the results, and players and coaches from both sides are anticipating another nail-biter at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.
“I expect it to be a really tough contest,” Wallabies vice-captain Will Genia told reporters yesterday. “Whether the scoreboard reflects that or not, we’ll just have to wait and see. There’s not been many points scored but there’s been a lot of intent.”
The Lions, who tour every four years with their destination rotating between Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, left Sydney as losers in 2001 after the Wallabies won the decider to complete a 2-1 comeback victory. Their last series win was 16 years ago in South Africa.
After losing in Australia, the Lions were swept 3-0 by the All Blacks and were defeated 2-1 by South Africa in 2009. A fourth straight series loss would be unprecedented since the combined team first started playing Tests in 1891.
“This is grand final rugby, last throw of the dice with everything to play for,” Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree said yesterday. “We have to go out and give it everything. These players are desperate and there is definitely one huge performance left in the tank.”
The squad of elite British and Irish players arrived in Australia on June 3 as the bookmakers’ favorites to beat the third-ranked Wallabies and those chances improved when they won last month’s series opener in Brisbane. Oddsmakers now rate the home team as the most likely victor.
Wallabies coach Robbie Deans said he expects his team’s performance level to lift, citing a gradual improvement in combinations and on-field understanding after Australia scored the only try in last week’s 16-15 win in Melbourne.
“This will be our best performance, without a doubt,” Deans said two days ago. “It’s a new game, a new circumstance, and how the teams respond to the winner-takes-all context will be a big part of it.”
Deans and Lions head coach Warren Gatland, his fellow New Zealander, both sprang selection surprises this week.
Australia recalled back-row forward George Smith, who celebrated his 21st birthday by helping the Wallabies beat the Lions in the third Test in 2001, after a near four-year absence from the national team.
Now 32 and back playing in Australia on a loan spell from his Japanese club, Smith was chosen ahead of Michael Hooper to start at openside flanker after recovering from a knee injury that had threatened to rule him out of the entire series.
“George is a freak,” Genia added. “He’s running around like he’s 21. He offers us so much with his experience and his ability at the breakdown.”
Smith’s inclusion gives the Wallabies 110 Tests’ worth of nous in the contest for the ball after a tackle, an area both teams have identified as being crucial to the outcome. By lining up against the Lions for the fourth time in a Test, Smith will tie a record held by seven other Australians. He’s the fourth Wallaby to do so across two separate tours and the first since the sport turned professional in 1995.
While Smith’s inclusion was the only switch in the Wallabies’ starting lineup, Gatland made six changes. The omission of Brian O’Driscoll, the Lions’ most-experienced player, from the entire 23-man squad for the must-win match came as the biggest surprise.
‘Die for the Cause’
Irish center O’Driscoll, the only survivor from the Lions’ 2001 tour, had been seen as the most likely replacement for injured captain Sam Warburton. Welsh lock Alun Wyn Jones will lead the combined team for the first time in front of a sold-out crowd of about 84,000 in Sydney. The first two games were played in front of record attendances at their respective stadiums.
“Everyone knows that Al will die for the cause,” Lions hooker Richard Hibbard said yesterday. “He is going to be the first man to want to make that tackle, make that first carry. Everyone is behind him and supporting him.”
O’Driscoll was dropped for the first time in his 15-year international rugby career as fit-again Jamie Roberts was paired with fellow Welshman Jonathan Davies in the centers. England’s Manu Tuilagi provides the midfield backup on the bench.
Irish winger Tommy Bowe, who played all three Tests in South Africa four years ago, said the Lions had been “a little bit passive” in Melbourne and allowed Australia to gain momentum. They won’t make the same mistake in the decider.
“We realize that it’s been 16 years since we last won a Lions series,” Bowe said yesterday. “We’ll leave everything out on the pitch.”