Henderson has lesson for Lions from class of '01
Former Ireland centre knows only too well how Australians react and adapt after a first Test loss, writes Hugh Godwin
The interception of a Jonny Wilkinson pass and a flying elbow from Nathan Grey that knocked 50 shades of you-know-what out of Richard Hill are the turning points most often quoted when considering how the Lions of 2001 lost the second Test in Melbourne, having won the first in Brisbane.
But Rob Henderson, the Irish centre who played every minute of every Test in that scintillating series, invites us to consider another factor.
"I was amazed Martin Corry was dropped after playing so well in the first Test," says Henderson, who has just got back from catching up with Grey, Hill and a few of the other leading men from the drama of a dozen years ago in a Legends match Down Under.
"There has always been a lot made of Grey's elbow, and rightly so, but I still believe the dropping of Corry and the changing of the make-up of our back-row was crucial. It gave Steve Larkham (the Wallaby out-half) a small fraction of extra space. Not a whole heap, but just enough."
The selections were made, then as now, by a New Zealander as Lions head coach. Henderson praises Graham Henry for giving the 2001 Lions "an exciting, expansive, fast-flowing style" but insists the predecessor to today's Kiwi coach Warren Gatland was wrong to change a winning line-up by calling up Neil Back in Melbourne.
With Scott Quinnell retained at No 8, it meant that Hill – whom no one ever dropped, whether they were the Lions, England, Saracens or Salisbury U-16s – was moved from openside to blind, and Corry demoted to the bench despite the excellence of the Lions' 29-13 victory seven days previously.
Henderson recalls: "Back had always been earmarked by Henry as his first-choice No 7 but he had not been fit to play in Brisbane. When Backy recovered, Graham put him straight in. Neil was a fantastic player but a different kind of No 7 to what Hilly was. Whereas in the first Test we were up in their face, and Hilly was smashing them over, Backy was more of a groundworker."
At the same roofed-in Melbourne stadium that will stage today's second Test – "It was more dark and almost seedy than the first Test," Henderson remembers, with the same levity that in 2001 masked the terrific work he did on his fitness to earn selection for the tour – the Lions were 11-6 up at the interval.
But the two pivotal moments everyone remembers were upon them. Six minutes before half-time the Lions made a belting breakout: Keith Wood on the rampage, Martin Johnson in support, and a snapped pass from the captain to Hill that bounced off the flanker's chest.
In the split-second that Hill was grasping at thin air Grey, the tough Australian inside-centre, arrived with a gruesome collision that was never punished, either by the referee Jonathan Kaplan or by any judicial process thereafter. Hill's knees buckled, his nose spouted blood – he was out of the tour.
His team-mates would later find it irresistibly amusing that the X-ray showed his skull to be a few millimetres thicker than the average, but at the time it was no laughing matter.
"I didn't see it happen, on the field," says Henderson. "But looking at the replays there was no doubt in my mind that he (Grey) went for him. Absolutely no doubt. It wasn't even a tackle.
"He jumped in the air and basically elbowed him in the face. If there'd been a video replay procedure he'd have gone off for that. Hilly had been on fire for us."
The Lions began the second half attempting to spread the ball wide quickly from a ruck in their own half. Wilkinson threw a miss-pass intended for Welsh wing Dafydd James. Even as the ball left his hands, Wilkinson's heart was in his mouth. James' opposite number, the brilliant Joe Roff, had anticipated the play.
The Wallaby shrugged off Henderson's flailing grab at his jersey and ran away for the first of his two tries. Another by Matt Burke helped make the final score an emphatic 35-14.
"You can't hold that against Jonny," says Henderson, "but it gave them a massive boost. From then on in it was like fighting an amber tide. They were world champions and an incredible side. John Eales was an inspiration to them, they had plenty in the tank and we didn't have an answer."
How the psychological scales see-saw from one Test to the next is a fascination of any series. "We were going into the second Test with loads of confidence from absolutely battering them in the first match and seeing the support we'd had in Brisbane," says Henderson.
"The Australians figured that out and gave their fans a load of free yellow scarves and hats. And you've got to realise Australia are consistently one of the best sides in the world for a reason. They look at the way teams play against them and adapt. In 2001 they changed their tactics, whereas we played with the same pattern, and it didn't work."
Interestingly, Henderson feels Gatland (who as Ireland coach omitted him from the 1999 World Cup) has moved correctly to alter the balance of today's Lions team. In 2001, in the third Test, another dodgy tackle by Grey's fellow centre Dan Herbert on Brian O'Driscoll received a yellow card, and Wilkinson kicked the penalty for 23-23.
"We didn't take enough advantage while we were one man up," says Henderson, highlighting another regret as the Lions were beaten 29-23, though you could hardly say it has eaten him up to this day, as he was delighted to play opposite Grey, Larkham and Chris Latham in last weekend's Brisbane reunion.
"I was chatting to Hilly afterwards," says Henderson, now a City of London broker after a career with London Irish, Wasps, Munster and Toulon, "and he said, 'You'll never believe this – Nathan Grey is following me on Twitter'. I thought that was hilarious." (© Independent News Service)
July 7, 2001
Australia 35 Lions 14
Scoring: 0-3 Wilkinson pen; 0-6 Wilkinson pen; 3-6 Burke pen; 3-11 Back try; 6-11 Burke pen; 11-11 Roff try; 14-11 Burke pen; 21-11 Roff try, Burke con; 21-14 Wilkinson pen; 26-14 Burke try; 29-14 Burke pen; 32-14 Burke pen; 35-14 Burke pen.
Australia – M Burke; A Walker, D Herbert, N Grey, J Roff; S Larkham, G Gregan; N Stiles, M Foley, R Moore; D Giffin, J Eales (capt); O Finegan, G Smith, T Kefu. Replacements: C Latham for Walker (46), M Cockbain for Giffin (72), E Flatley for Larkham (82), B Cannon for Foley (88).
Lions – M Perry (Bath/Eng); D James (Bridgend/Wal), B O'Driscoll (Leinster/Ire), R Henderson (Munster/Ire), J Robinson (Sale/Eng); J Wilkinson (Newcastle/Eng), R Howley (Cardiff/Wal); T Smith (Northampton/Scot), K Wood (Harlequins/Ire), P Vickery (Gloucester/Eng); M Johnson (Leicester/Eng; capt), D Grewcock (Bath/Eng); R Hill (Saracens/Eng), N Back (Leicester/Eng), S Quinnell (Llanelli/Wal). Replacements: M Corry (Leicester/Eng) for Hill (h-t), I Balshaw (Bath/Eng) for Perry (53), J Leonard (Harlequins/Eng) for Vickery (65), N Jenkins (Cardiff/Wal) for Wilkinson (74), M Dawson (Northampton/Eng) for Howley (86).