Tuesday 21 November 2017

Tourists stir from holiday mode

Series was veering towards mundanity, but now grenades are starting to fly.

‘Warren Gatland’s heart must have missed a beat, because the Lions will be lost if Jonathan Sexton is added to the list of injured.’
‘Warren Gatland’s heart must have missed a beat, because the Lions will be lost if Jonathan Sexton is added to the list of injured.’
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Up until yesterday morning we feared that this tour was passing so far below the radar that it would snag a vital organ on some rooftop or other. And the sound of it falling to earth would barely qualify as a thud. Then Bob Dwyer rode to the rescue.

The casual fans who make up so much of the modern rugby constituency might not even remember Bob. We first came across him in Dublin during the 1991 World Cup. Back then the role of media prevention officer hadn't been created, so you could watch his Wallabies train in Trinity and then stroll up to the Westbury where they were staying, and grab whoever you wanted for a yap. Ah, happy days.

So over an unhurried lunch you got the impression of a nice man, a thoughtful coach who carried some hurt at having been ditched by the Australian Rugby Union on his first mission with the Wallabies. He was quietly confident about the group he had then, and a few weeks later we saw why, when they beat England to win the competition for the first time.

Since then Bob has been around the traps at home and abroad, and has never been far from the sports pages. When we suggested here in the build-up to the tour that the Aussies would have choreographed a sequence of rugby heads, old and new, to lob grenades into the Lions camp, Bob Dwyer we reckoned was already in his fatigues.

And yet he hardly opened his beak. Dwyer's silence confirmed for us that this was a tour that was really struggling. Never mind that the injuries were mounting steadily, as they do on any end-of-season tour, but the greatest threat to the Lions was coming from a different source: the disinterested.

The reporting of the trip in some quarters was, well, enthusiastic. Long-time Lions correspondents are fearful for the future of the operation, so there was an element of 'bigging it up'.

Last week the ARU, for whom the tour is Christmas dressed in Aussie dollars, went in to bat for the home team. Both teams even. The circus expects to have aggregated circa 400,000 punters when it wraps up in Sydney in three weeks, an increase they say of 30 per cent on 2001 attendances when just over 300,000 fans paid their way in the gate for the 10 matches. Given that this time around there are only nine games on Australian soil, thanks to the sweaty stopover with the Barbarians, this figure looks like a winner.

It has been blighted though by the sight of Storm Troopers pillaging deserted towns. First the Lions stopped in Hong Kong in a smoothing exercise aimed at building the brand's commercial clout and satisfying main sponsors HSBC. Our understanding is that the Lions had to pay the ARU €360,000 to play only nine games in Australia instead of 10, so it remains to be seen if commercially it was a winner because everything else about it looked wrong.

The crowds in Perth, Brisbane and Newcastle were good, but the opposition was so poor in three of the first four games that the folks back home, and the average Australian punter, were wondering what all the fuss was about.

Then Bob Dwyer finally came in from the garden, where he had been potting plants, and opened up on the tourists. He managed not just to brand the British and Irish as cheats, but he also got a direct hit on the Kiwis, saying that it was small wonder the Lions were such rule-benders with a New Zealander in charge.

It wasn't exactly bush fire stuff, but at least it confirmed that there is a pulse to all of this. And then his old team, the Waratahs, overcame the huge handicap of injuries and absent Wallabies to give the tourists a really good run yesterday. Primed as you would expect by Michael Cheika, their physicality was absolute.

The only complaint we'd have was that loosehead Jeremy Tilse was allowed to pin down Jonny Sexton, with his elbow on the outhalf's throat, for what seemed like an age, in the scoring of Tom Carter's try in the second half.

When it was apparent that it was Sexton at the bottom of the ruck, Warren Gatland's heart missed a few beats because the Lions will be lost if he is added to the list of injured. Owen Farrell's value has diminished in the presence of the metronomic Leigh Halfpenny. If Farrell is not firing over goal kicks, then the rest of his game is more solid than inspirational. The decision to bring just two 10s is looking every bit as bad now as it did at the time.

There was a lot that was good about the Lions yesterday, best illustrated in Halfpenny's try – he is heading for the player of the tour award – and the bad stuff was mostly that sometimes they became easy to read from phase play out wide, pulling the ball back too deep and putting themselves in trouble.

It was typical of what you expect a week out from the first Test: players going hammer and tongs to nail down a place, but doing it in the framework of a conservative enough plan. For example, they went out of their way to show nothing at the lineout, with the bulk of their 12 throws (only one was lost) going to the front. Already we know they can maul and scrummage – what we don't is how they will defend the maul against the Wallabies on Saturday. And will they, for the first time on tour, have to cope with a team that offloads enough to prevent the Lions getting their defensive line – which had good speed yesterday – set?

It will be brutally physical in Brisbane and while injuries are now kicking in – Christian Wade and Brad Barritt are the latest help hired from England's tour of Argentina – the tourists have a real advantage in that they are game-ready. We don't know what Robbie Deans has been doing with the Wallabies behind closed doors but none of his squad will have played for three weeks – and some of them longer – when they fetch up on Saturday, so the coach will need to have produced something special to compensate for that.

The Lions however need to get some luck on the injury front. The hamstring tear for Jamie Roberts messes up the plan to pair him with Brian O'Driscoll, and while Jonathan Davies will slot in perfectly and is in fine form, the injuries hanging over George North and Manu Tuilagi need to move into the past tense to brighten the picture. Flying in reinforcements isn't just distracting, it means new players on crash courses to catch up.

This is only the halfway point. Injury calamities are not supposed to unfold until the last week of the tour. But at least people are now sitting up and taking notice that the event is up and running. Game on, at last.

Irish Independent

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