Lions strength on show ahead of Brumbies clash
The scene is surreal. Diana Ross and The Supremes are wafting from pitch side speakers.
The Lions players make their way onto the field of the North Sydney Oval on the eve of their game with the Brumbies, and start to warm up for their training session.
It is a real mark of the magic of the Lions that as Rob Kearney and Owen Farrell, both sporting the same red and bright orange boots, warm up together and you just regard it as the norm.
Meanwhile, the captain for the fixture Rory Best focuses on some stretches. Another great sight from an Irish point of view is to see Tommy Bowe running onto the pitch. Earlier the team’s head doctor James Robson had explained to attending media that the Monaghan man would recommence running before revisiting the surgeon who operated on his hand later this week.
However, the eyes and the flashbulbs are much more focused on the tunnel from where the players emerge to get the first glimpse of new arrivals Christian Wade, Brad Barritt and of course Shane Williams who will be making his Lions come back for one night only in Canberra.
The music provided by Irish Baggage Master Patrick “Rala” O’Reilly, changes to the Kinks but then comes to an abrupt halt as the warm-up gives way to the real business of moulding together this new look team for tomorrow’s fixture.
Naturally, most of the media attention is coming from English and Welsh journalists. Despite, the Lions squad transcending national loyalties, back home the Irish want to read about the Irish contingent and the Welsh about the Welsh. As one English journalist joked, the Irish press won’t mind too much about these latest additions,as they will be keeping their fingers crossed for Simon Zebo to win a test berth.
You could argue that the appearance of Williams in particular is merely a subplot to this Lions Tour tale but the reason at the heart of why the Welsh man has has come to “help out” is the on-going string of injuries amongst the back division, “there has been a lot of injuries on what has been a tough tour and if I can help the Lions recover, then I am very proud to be part it.”
Another English reporter jokes, “Christian, Shane and Brad, they don’t sound like rugby players, more like a boy band!” After the training session the trio sit down for a press conference.
The choice of the Supremes’ “Baby Love” now seems oddly apt as Williams who sits in the centre flanked by Wade and Barritt is given the lion’s share of attention and so he takes the Diana Ross role in this particular press conference!
The former Wales and Ospreys wing who is now plyinghis trade in the Japanese Top League for the Mitsubishi Dynaboars had just played in a game in which his side lost on Saturday when he received a call with an “out of the blue” request from Lions backs coach Rob Howley.
As the 36 year-old recounted, “Rob rang asking weather of not I would be willing to help the Lions out and paly on Tuesday. There was no way I was going to say no. I don’t think anybody would ever say no to that opportunity. To be given this opportunity is a dream come through.”
He already had his bags packed to head Down Under working as a commentator. In fact the last time many of the media would have seen Williams was on the Lions Squad announcement day when he interviewed Captain Sam Warburton and members of the coaching staff.
The England duo of Wade and Barritt were both beaming despite having to make arduous journeys from Argentina and Los Angeles respectively before stepping into face this season’s form Super Rugby side.
22 year-old London Wasps star Wade is a product of therenowned rugby nursery Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, which three time Lion Matt Dawson also attended. The wing had just made his debut for England described the past week as a “a roller coaster.”
Wade and Williams are both breaking the stereotype of lofty wings such as Bowe, Alex Cuthbert and George North that have become a hallmark of this Lions side. Due to his relatively diminutive stature the young English man always looked up to his Welsh counterpartremarking about tomorrow’s game, “To be able to play along side him, is kind of beyond my dreams.”
South African born centre Barritt had been on holiday in Los Angeles with his wife when he received his call to the squad and only days ago had been tweeting photos ofvisits to Universal Studios and Malibu.
Fortunately for the 26 year-old, who had boots specially delivered to Sydney one vital piece of rugbyparaphernalia had remained amongst his holiday packing “quite strangely I had a gum guard in my toiletries bag.”
After training had ended coaches and former England internationals Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree were jogging on the pitch and both jested that they might be next in line get a surprise Lions call up.
“We are getting ready for the Rebels game”, quipped Farrell. Now just imagine if Farrell Senior was to join his son Owen on the pitch next week – that might just eclipse the Shane Williams come back tour!