The desperate British and Irish Lions have taken aim at Australia’s inspirational forward leaders as they try to avoid the ignominy of four straight series defeats for the first time in 125 years.
Not once in their proud history stretching back to their first visit to Australia and New Zealand in 1888 have the Lions suffered four consecutive series losses and the tourists admit they’re “prepared to do anything” to beat the Wallabies on Saturday night.
“It’s the biggest game of our lives, this, as players and coaches,” Lions assistant coach Graham Rowntree said on Friday.
“This is grand final rugby. The last throw of the dice. Everything to play for.
“I’d say desperate is the word.”
So desperate that the Lions are risking retribution from the Wallabies for questioning the selection of veteran flanker George Smith, who turns 33 next week, for his first Test in four years and for mocking skipper James Horwill’s emotional celebration after Australia’s tense series-levelling win last Saturday.
Smith hasn’t played for six weeks because of a knee injury, but has replaced Michael Hooper in the back row and consigned reserve flanker Liam Gill to a place in the stands at ANZ Stadium.
“We’ll see how much of a gamble it is with Smith tomorrow,” Rowntree said.
“I’m surprised at that. He’s been out for a long time. It will be interesting to see his match fitness. They’ve got three good sevens in that squad.”
Former All Blacks coach Graham Henry has also labelled Smith’s selection a risk, but Wallabies vice-captain Will Genia on Friday dismissed fears the 110-Test legend has been rushed back prematurely.
“George is a freak,” Genia said. “He’s running around like he’s 21.”
Rowntree isn’t doubting Smith’s prowess and knows Irish flanker Sean O’Brien, in for injured Lions captain Sam Warburton, will have his work cut out.
But he is backing the Lions back row to win the key breakdown battle.
“He’s still good, still very good technically, but he makes very good decisions when to go in there to challenge the breakdown,” Rowntree said.
“It’s going to be a big challenge for Sean. But from what we’ve seen from training today and how we’ve trained all week, crikey we’re ready for this battle.”
While Genia and Wallabies coach Robbie Deans are promising Australia’s best performance of the series, Rowntree believes the hosts played their grand final in Melbourne.
“I think we saw the reaction from Australia last week after they beat us,” Rowntree said.
“Especially their captain Horwill – he was crying after the game – they threw everything at us in that game and beat us by a point and we really didn’t get our game going.
“We know that and we’ve looked at it a lot this week. Particularly third and fourth quarter, we didn’t get going and there’s loads more to come from us.
“And the guys are desperate to win.”
The Lions haven’t won a series since downing South Africa 2-1 in 1997.
The last time they faced four straight series defeats, the Lions edged Australia 19-18 in the 1989 decider in Sydney.