This is an opinion piece by former Wallaby Mathew Burke on the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour to Australia in June. Burke is a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald.
I’m sensing the vibe is a little different for this series against the British and Irish Lions compared with 2001.
The excitement and enthusiasm is there, but in comparison to the Wallabies 12 years ago – who were coming off a golden period in Australian rugby winning Bledisloe cups, the World Cup and the Tri Nations – that year’s series against the Lions was going to be the icing on the cake. This time around, Australian rugby is not as sure of itself and there are nervous expectations.
In 2013, the Wallabies will be trying to find their feet having tasted only limited success in the past couple of years. The Wallabies are seeking to impose themselves again as a force in world rugby. We can all assume that when the All Blacks juggernaut resumes it will continue on its merry way but this is such an important series for the Wallabies to get back their credibility, to reinvigorate rugby in Australia and put it back on the map.
This is the biggest event involving the Wallabies for some time. The 2015 World Cup is a long way away and yes, there are the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe matches to contest but beating the Lions is what every Australian rugby supporter wants.
We have just heard the announcement of the Lions squad and it’s dominated by the Welsh, largely from that magnificent display against England in the final round of the Six Nations. My thinking is this team will be trying to win not only for themselves but for the blokes who tried and failed 12 years ago. Yet this team is very different. These players are trying to attain legendary status, whereby the Lions of 2001 were just that, full of players at the top of their game.
In 2001 the Wallabies team sheet still looked similar to the crew that had success in Cardiff. Little did we know that team was in fact coming to the end of a great tenure. It still had the spine of the team but there was no Tim Horan, Jason Little, Richard Harry, Phil Kearns, Andrew Blades or David Wilson but what it did have was a great culture and acceptance that whoever came into that team picked up where others left off. John Eales held off retirement to play against the Lions and what a send-off it became for him.
The enormity of the challenge that lay ahead of us was huge. Before the 1999 World Cup there was a definite goal to achieve. A plan was in place, there were a few hiccups but the key was preparation, something the Wallabies had little of in 2001 leading into the series and in 2013 will have less of before the first Test. There is so much hype around the games. The players have read up on what to expect with the juggernaut of players from Britain and Ireland. Surrounded by a sea of red and a voice that will go into the early hours of the morning. Until you get that touch of reality, the deafening noise of the Lions fans is out of everyone’s comprehension.
At this point I have to reiterate again how important this series is to Australian rugby. The Lions squad seems to be heavily based on size and power especially in the backs. The Welsh three-quarter line of Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Alex Cuthbert and George North are all easily upwards of 100 kilograms. Throw in there Manu Tuilagi and Brian O’Driscoll you have some heavy hitters. Sharpshooters Leigh Halfpenny, Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell will collect the three points every time. Ben Youngs and Conor Murray were in form throughout the Six Nations and although Mike Phillips was off somewhat through February and March, he adds to the pack as the ninth forward.
Like all Tests, and it pains me to say, this is where the most influence will be in determining the end result. The Welsh front row this year was dominant. Richard Hibbard is confrontational. Although Paul O’Connell didn’t take part in the Six Nations, he was always going to be hard to leave out just for his experience and partnering Geoff Parling from England, will prove a real handful for Horwill and Co at lineout time. It’s that back row that will be the real contest. Sam Warburton as captain is dogged around the park but interestingly Justin Tipuric played openside and Warburton at blindside flanker in the last Test against England. Warren Gatland has options of first line Test players and this is always the advantage that the Lions have over the home teams.
- Matthew Burke, SMH