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RUGBY UNION – July 6th – 3rd Test – Australia v British & Irish Lions (Sydney)

The tale of two, last gasp, missed penalty kicks had lead us to this deciding game. It was 2001 all over again and I for one did not want to go through the pain and anguish of what I experienced near enough 12 years ago to the day! When Leigh Halfpenny’s penalty fell short in Melbourne, I started having flashbacks all over again, but the one thing I could predict with the unnerving accuracy of an Olympic archer, was the pounding my liver was going to take in the lead-up to the game. After another week closer to cirrhosis, the final leg of the Lions tour was not going to be a celebratory lap of honour, but hopefully a solid preparation for the glory that could possibly be “the Saturday night to remember”.

However, the Test team announcement on the Tuesday saw some huge surprises. It seemed that Coach Gatland had got his own way at the selection table when 10 Welshmen (just not enough in my opinion!) were chosen in the starting line-up which was beefed up like an East German shotputter. But daggers were thrust through Irish hearts, when the elder statesman of the touring party, and the former “best centre in the world”, Brian O’Driscoll, was dropped completely from the match day squad. I actually went for a “swift half” with an Irish native the day after the team was announced only to be told that “she shouldn’t even be talking to me”!!!! Emotions were certainly running strong.

There is no room for sentimentality in sport any more, especially where the prize, the pressure and the intensity is so great. O’Driscoll has epitomized the spirit of rugby for so long. He is a legend of the game – a moniker I rarely bestow on anyone. But his omission sent shockwaves amongst both the British and Aussie press:

BRIAN O’Driscoll should not only be in the Lions side for Saturday night’s decider, he should be leading the team onto the field as captain.- Tim Horan

A number of decisions on this summer’s tour suggests that the “concept and ethos of the Lions has been forgotten. Nobody can tell me that Jamie Roberts is a better player than Brian O’Driscoll. Robbie Deans must be laughing all the way to Saturday.- Willie John McBride

You just wonder if they got a lucky bag and picked some names out. I was convinced Brian O’Driscoll should have been named as captain. It’s catastrophic leaving him out. He’s still one of the top centres in world rugby. He’s a fantastic guy and has been on four tours and knows it all inside out. It’s a massive mistake.- Ian Robertson

It is a terrible mistake. O’Driscoll has been quiet. But he has been the clarion call once Paul O’Connell got injured. I am totally at a loss.- Keith Wood

Warren Gatland may have made a mistake by axing veteran centre Brian O’Driscoll. I would have paired him with Jamie Roberts for the third Test in Sydney. For me, they are the best centre partnership in world rugby.- Sir Ian McGeechan

For the life of me, I cannot fathom why he [Gatland] has done it. He has never toed the line traditionally. He has had some amazing results, he’s a fantastic coach and rightly the Lions coach, but is he just making a statement that he can do this? – Shane Byrne

It wouldn’t be a genuine Lions tour without some abrasiveness between the 4 Nations. There is always going to be issues with the makeup of any Lions team – there’s never enough Welshmen, Irishmen, Englishmen or Sco…. no, don’t think we will ever have that issue!!!

When a close friend of mine that really only has a passing interest in sport made an impassioned plea to secure a ticket to the game and then drive from Melbourne on the morning of the match, it truly shows the cult appeal that a Lions series can bring. Obviously it’s never just about the rugby, but once you become part of the whole experience it’s a high like no other.

Around Sydney in the lead-up to the game, the highly publicised “Sea of Red” was out in force. Everywhere you went, there were red jerseys – unless you were Irish, then the green version was the colour of choice as symbolic support for the ousted BO’D! Every pub you passed saw Brits of all ages camped out sampling the local amber nectar. What amazed me this time round was the sheer number of the “more mature” tourist – it seems that rugby tour folklore remains in high regard – is 70 the new 40?

Sydney was abuzz with rugby fever. There was little other interest around the city. The day was gloroius – god had turned it on for the game they play in heaven. The stadium itself is a 20 minute train ride from the centre of town. Trains were leaving every 10 minutes and were packed to the point where there were disappointed punters left on the platform – mainly because of those vital 10 minutes of lost drinking time, having to wait for the next train. Upon arrival at Olympic Park, we finally found where the Aussies had been hiding all day. We all adjourned to the monstrous beer tent that had perhaps the longest bar in the world – and it was still 10 deep throughout. Bulk purchases were necessary just to keep hydrated.

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The atmosphere in Olympic Park was pumping. The flood of the 83,702 fans into the ground created log jams everywhere. After trekking up the 6 levels and then another 50 odd rows of seats later I said goodbye to my sherpa guide, and my arrival at the summit was greeted by a good number of Lions fans in the manner I have now been accustomed to.

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The view from the roof was spectacular, but watching ants play for one of the biggest prizes in rugby is not my cup of tea. At least I was on the half way line – right!!! From the kick-off, the roar of the Lions fans was ear shattering. It got even louder when Will Genia dropped the opening kickoff! A minute later the Lions had scored their first try when Corbisiero bobbed up and bounced over the line. As the game started to take shape the Lions forward strength began to assert itself. When Richard Hibbard, the hooker from Ty Bach, who had been brought in to add some much needed steel, used his face/head to stop evergreen Aussie George Smith. It was Smith who came off second best and had to spend 10 minutes off the field just to check he still had all his faculties in tact!

When the Wallabies prop Alexander was sin-binned for essentially being crap, there was air of inevitability about the result. When the Lions jumped to 19-3, the Wallabies then sparked into action. A twinkle-toed solo try from O’Connor after the siren and two penalties in 5 minutes after the break saw the deficit reduced to only 3 points. When Hibbard was replaced early in the second half, he had put his body on the line so many times the physios had no idea which part of his body needed ice the most!

With just over a half hour to go, mine and many others’ moods feared the worst. The Aussies were on top and had all the momentum. The carnage was immense. On 55 minutes there was a comical moment when 4 players were down and all needed treatment for bleeding injuries. At one stage I think they were even trying to ask qualified doctor Jamie Roberts, playing in the centre for the Lions, to help out with the stitches! This may well have been the turning point though, as straight after this mini-break, the Lions scored a well worked try down the left, after a half break through Davies and then Halfpenny, who sent Sexton through under the posts. If you thought the roar at opening try was loud, the decibels this time were immeasurable.

Just minutes later, this happened:

Halfpenny again made the break from nothing to kill any thought of a comeback. When the Flying Doctor Roberts bust through a weak Aussie defence less than 2 minutes later it was all over. The Gatland masterplan had been executed to a tee and beef and brawn had won the day. The Sydney party had only just begun and the celebrations on the pitch were only a precursor as to what was soon to be occurring throughout Sydney over the next 5 or 6 hours (make that 25 or 26 hours!). The Lions players and officials stayed on the field for the next 40 minutes soaking it all in. This was the first series win since 1997 and we just hope that it’s not another 16 years between drinks – well not between drinks as we all know that they will keep flowing no matter the result!

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DHL Rugby Series Third Test

AUSTRALIA 16 – 41 BRITISH LIONS

(Lions win the series 2-1)

And the drinks did flow until the wee hours of the morning. So much so that it was reported that some Sydney establishments ran out of beer (2001 all over again)! It still amazes me that some places are not prepared for what is possibly their biggest drinking day for 12 years! The pub we were in was dreadfully understaffed, but I guess there are only so many backpackers to go round that actually wanted to work today!

The third installment of Mic-watch saw yet another world-class effort from the Brummie.

sydney montage

Another tour has come and gone. The series itself was as engrossing as it could get. The end result could not have been sweeter and the craic will again be lauded over for years to come. New Zealand in 2017 has already been discussed and I have no doubt that as that time draws closer, the stories, the pictures, the memories from the past 12 years will grow into the stuff legends are made of. Let’s hope all our livers recover in time!!!! See you across the ditch in 4 years time.

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RUGBY UNION – June 29th – 2nd Test – Australia v British & Irish Lions (Melbourne)

If you flew into Melbourne this week – on a clear day, which is pretty rare right now – you would have been greeted with this image in a neighbouring field:

rootin for oz

Apparently some people have taken this ad as offensive; I’m not sure to whom, but to someone. Certainly not the Brits – definitely not the Irish!

So, the mind games had begun in earnest. Beware an Australian scorned. That has been ringing in my ears all week. Like Shane McGowan, they just keep surviving and hanging in there, no matter what. The Australians are even better at it when their backs are against the wall. They have a siege mentality and after last week’s result, the motivational propaganda was out in force. In 2001, after the “Sea of Red” episode at the Gabba which continues to haunt every international sporting code in Australia, Melbourne was flooded with adverts on billboards, on trucks, in newspapers and on TV urging fans to “Be bold, wear gold.” In 2013 the message had evolved to “It’s on for green and gold – Your country needs you more than ever before!”

The home crowd were implored to “Rise Up, Grab the person next to you and stand shoulder to shoulder for the National Anthem”, like a herd of disillusioned sheep (in their sheepish, canary yellow, Qantas sponsored styrofoam Diggers’ hats – now I do find them offensive!!!). These hats are now the subject of taunts from the Lions fans, who take every opportunity to sing at their counterparts “You’re only wearing yellow ‘cos it’s free…..”, and repeated ad nauseum, until a bite…..

2nd Test anthem

I was perturbed when I saw a number of British & Irish Lions supporters belt out the Australian National Anthem with more fervour than the locals, but I guess that the one downside of not having an anthem to sing at the game, is that you might want to join in with the opposition’s!

56,771 fans crammed into every available space in Etihad Stadium. The official capacity is only 53,359, but with standing and the comically titled “half view” tickets sold to accommodate the ARU’s desire to bleed every last dollar out of the tourist’s phenomenal appeal, 3,412 additional bodies were able to experience what turned out to be a pretty dour and turgid game. The Lions had surprisingly made 5 changes to the winning team from last week – 2 of the forward changes were forced through injury, the other forward & back changes were partly form, partly tactical and the final one at scrum half remains a closely guarded secret…….

For 75 minutes both teams essentially cancelled each other out. It was scrappy affair throughout, there were many handling errors and big tackles, and it was far from the Brisbane spectacle that that had got us more excited than Wayne Rooney at the Early Learning Centre . The one clear chance either team had, Australia took with aplomb. After sustained possession, Adam Ashley-Cooper pounced from 5 metres out through a misaligned defence, to score and cut the Lions lead to a solitary point. Christian Lealiifano, whose debut last week ended after a mere 52 seconds, stepped up and popped over the conversion to reverse that 1 point deficit with only minutes to go. In yet another twist, as the final siren sounded, Australia conceded a penalty on the half way line to give the Lions a chance of victory. Halfpenny’s attempt fell short which sent the home team and crowd into rapture.

2nd Test wallabies celbrating2

The sour point from the night was the injury to the Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton, who may well be missing from the final Test. Although, both captains may well be missing, as James Horwill’s stamping/trampling case is being re-heard in order to further disect evidence to determine his fate. He was moved to tears at the final whistle; perhaps he knows that he will be missing from the 3rd Test…….

The biggest and most extraordinary moment of the game came when this happened:

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All the more astonishing is the fact that Folau weighs 106 kgs (234 lbs) and he got picked up and carried like he was a naughty schoolboy (primary school, obviously!)….

The atmosphere reflected the game. It was tense, but electric. The Australians were quiet, but the Brits lacked cohesion. The “LIONS, LIONS. LIONS” chants were regular and loud but lacked variety, and it wasn’t quite enough to get the boys over the line. However, it is the passion on the field that counts and the Aussies had this in spades. The final whistle sparked emotions that you rarely see from this set of players. As long as O’Connor and Beale didn’t celebrate this win like they did the loss last week, they should be in good shape for the third Test.

They were photographed with a Lions fan at Hungry Jacks (Burger King) on Tuesday night at 4am. This after Beale had just spent the previous 2 weeks in a rehab clinic!! They were cleared of any wrongdoing by the ARU though…. Lucky they’re not members of the Aussie cricket team, otherwise there may have been an incident!!!!!

AUSTRALIA 16 – 15 BRITISH LIONS

The second test saw our follow-up installment of Mic-watch. Another solid performance from the big lad.

2nd Test mic strip

So, we all head up to Sydney for the deciding Test Match next weekend. The deja-vu of the 2001 series is astonishing. I just hope that result can be reversed, otherwise it’ll be another 12 years of ifs, buts, maybes and what the hell happeneds – aaaaarrrrgggghhhhhh!!!!!!!

RUGBY UNION – June 22nd – 1st Test – Australia v British & Irish Lions (Brisbane)

There are many reasons why you go to watch sport. There’s the atmosphere generated by the crowd, the pure theatre generated by the match and then there’s the social aspect. International rugby is the pinnacle of this combination, and it is safe to say, that after witnessing my first International Test match at the age of 13 I have been hooked. That afternoon, Wales lost to France by a point in the Grand Slam decider. I stood on an overly packed West Lower stand in the “old” National Stadium (more commonly referred to, incorrectly, as Cardiff Arms Park) where I could hardly see any of the game itself, but that didn’t matter. The banter, the singing, the roar of the crowd when Ieuan Evans scored the try that nearly got us the Grand Slam all live long in my memory. That feeling of pure euphoria I experienced that day I have carried with me ever since; 26 years and 62 International Matches later I am in Brisbane for the first Test of a 3 match series.

The British & Irish Lions games are unbelievably special. Prior to 1997, it was quite rare to have met anyone that had actually seen the Lions play in the flesh. For many British sports fans it was a bucket list item that featured very prominently. The 2001 Australian tour was an eye opener for me. It confirmed that a Lions trip is the ultimate supporter’s tour. With our ever shrinking world, it has certainly become more accessible and more affordable to be able to achieve this once unassailable dream. In 2001, it was estimated that over 40,000 people descended on Australia for the tour itself. With the Australian dollar being so strong, coupled with an extended period of recession in the UK, those numbers are unlikely to be bettered, but it still says something about the draw of the Lions when you have to waver at “unlikely”!

Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium is as close to recreating the Cardiff experience, as you could get. The stadium is close to the city centre, and you get to the ground via Caxton Street – a 400 yard strip full of pubs and restaurants, not that there is much interest in eating on days like this!!! Even at 3pm – 5 hours until kickoff – the area is packed full of Lions fans, and it grows steadily until every pub is full to bursting, until that last hour before kickoff, when everyone files out to the ground down the hill.

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As you get into the stadium, the magnitude of the event hits you. The stadium officially holds 52,500. The crowd was announced as 52,499!!!! In 2001 the Aussies were blown away when their home stadiums turned red under the deluge of Lions fans. The gold was in better shape this time round, courtesy of  20,000 silly hats provided by a sponsor, but still the prevalence of the red of the Lions fans marginally outweighed the home supporters, mainly in the cheap seats though!

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The game itself took a while to get going, as the players felt their way out. Australia scored a length of the field try, when triple sport sensation Folau finished off a length of the field move for the first of his two sensational tries on his International debut. The Lions kicked a penalty soon after to reduce the deficit, but minutes later, this……

I think the best image is at 1:11 of this clip. When the Aussie that misses the tackle looks up to realise that North is going to score and the head drops. North is a fine specimen of a man. If there ever was a prototype rugby union back, it is this man. Only 21, 6ft 4, 110kgs (230lbs), great pace and agility with quick feet – an awesome combination. I’m just glad he’s Welsh!!! Not long after North was in again in the corner.

north no try'

However, this time it was adjudged that he was in touch so it was disallowed. Half time saw the teams only separated by a point. The second half seemed to fly by. The Welsh winger Cuthbert scored a cracker of a try early in the second half, but after that, all the subsequent points scored were kicks.

Down by 2 points late on, Australia were awarded a penalty with only around 100 seconds to go, I feared the worst. I have suffered for years watching them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on a number of occasions – more often than not against Wales. You just know that the Aussies will somehow find a way to win, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. And this time was no different.

You cant quite see what happened when he kicked it on that video….. but you can here!!!!

It was a brutal match. The Aussies were unlucky with injuries and it would have been a remarkable win considering. Lealiifano was stretchered off after only 48 seconds of his debut match. His replacement (McCabe) was also injured and replaced. McCabe’s replacement also got injured and Australia ended up with a scrum half on the wing, as the winger (Ioane) had to play in the centre paired up with a forward as they were out of resources – and guess what – Ioane ended up injured as well!!! The Wallabies missed a number of crucial kicks at goal which in the end proved costly. The Lions were more clinical, but all in all there was less than fag paper between them. All I can say is roll on Melbourne!

I got this sent to me by an Australian mate of mine (yes I do have them!) who seemed to point to a selection issue as the Wallabies failure:

Who are the four players that let the Wallabies Down:

1) Barnes
2) McCabe
3) JOC (James O’Connor)
4) Kurtly Beale

1) Barnes hardly played any rugby and was half injured, yet selected.
2) McCabe hardly played any rugby and was half injured, yet selected.
3) JOC hardly played any rugby and was half injured, yet selected.
4) Kurtly Beale hardly played any rugby and was half drunk, yet selected.

The only blight on the game was the despicable action of the Australian captain, who less than 3 minutes into the game, managed to get away with this….

It’s a weak act to “trample” on a defenseless person’s face, so close to the eyes. He got off as the judiciary could not prove the act was deliberate. In the end no real harm was done, but that is besides the point. I just hope the Lions do not go out to seek retribution of their own next time round.

AUSTRALIA 21 – 23 BRITISH LIONS

Outside of the match; when you have a full day of drinking and merriment, and you forget to eat, there are inevitably some casualties. As the night progressed……

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At 2.00am, we were left to get one of our own back to base camp. Luckily the only bodily function he had control of was his legs, so off we trekked, Weekend at Bernie’s style…… 45 minutes and 500 metres later, we ended up at McDonalds!!!!

mic bed 4

It’s okay, he was fine next day, well, next evening…….

Guess what though? – no doubt we will do it all again next week in Melbourne…. and then the week after that in Sydney too!!! I love the Lions tours……

 

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