Sunday 18 February 2018

Pith helmets set to fly if Wallabies again suffer Brisbane jitters

Greg Growden

Stung by how a sea of red jerseys in the Brisbane grandstands so unnerved the Wallabies during the first Lions Test 12 years ago, the Australian Rugby Union has struck back.

After being reminded by many Wallabies that they felt intimidated when running on to The Gabba for the opening international of the last Lions tour of Australia, the ARU thought it wise to remind all that this is actually a home Test match.

So, they're going to hand out to every Australian supporter walking into Suncorp Stadium a gold pith helmet to wear in an attempt to drown out the red.

Not a bad motivational move, but it could all go haywire if the Wallabies lose their way, and Australian supporters, to quell their anger, instead use the pith helmet as a weapon, flinging it at any nearby Lions fans.

There are bound to be chaotic scenes on the terraces, especially as the "fun police" who invade all Australian major sporting arenas love to assert their authority whenever anything is thrown into the air.

After all, the "fun police" are renowned for going right over the top whenever someone produces a plastic beach ball at a Sydney Cricket Ground, Gabba or MCG cricket Test.

As today's first Lions Test is bound to be a positional arm-wrestle dominated by kicking, similar to the grim midweek Brumbies-Lions match in Canberra, the real excitement could instead be between the pith helmet-flinging factions in the stands, particularly if the Wallabies again suffer from the Brisbane jitters.

And that is highly likely. While the Lions series has captivated Australia, as shown by the near-capacity crowds at all tour matches so far, even though they have clashed with Rugby League State of Origin matches and Australian Socceroos World Cup qualifying games, it also involves a sense of dread. The Australian rugby public is far from optimistic about their team's first Test chances.

There is a multitude of reasons for an underlying sense of pessimism, including that no one has a clue how the new-look Australian team will perform, whether a revamped midfield combination will gel or if novice flanker Ben Mowen is up to Test football standard.

There is also vigorous debate over whether James O'Connor can cope with the pressure of being the chief playmaker, while withstanding the Lions back-rowers endlessly running at him, or what exactly the Australian tactics will be.

The Wallabies starting XV is a bit of a hodgepodge, with serious question marks revolving around four positions.

The three new Wallabies – Mowen, centre Christian Lealiifano and winger Israel Folau – are great unknowns, and this game will determine the longevity of their international careers.

Even though O'Connor grew up in Queensland, he will receive no support from the Brisbane crowd if he blunders, because this is Quade Cooper territory, where every Reds supporter is seething that their extravagant pivot missed out on the squad.

O'Connor is the most self-assured of performers, but even he can be affected if the crowd turns, especially one fervently believing that Cooper should be in his spot.

Those with long memories vividly recall how the Brisbane crowd so viciously turned on New South Welshmen Mark and Glen Ella when they were chosen ahead of locals – Paul McLean and Roger Gould – for a 1982 Test against Scotland at Ballymore.

Queenslanders parochial? Sure. But their parochialism is at least balanced. Chips on both shoulders.

Adding to the doubts is that while the Lions are match-hardened, the Wallabies have been hidden away for weeks.

No wonder the Lions are short-odds favourites with even those Australian bookies brave enough to wear the gold pith helmets.

* Greg Growden is one of Australia's most prominent sports writers

Irish Independent

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