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SPIRO'S Lions Diary: Brumbies show Wallabies how to do it

Tevita Kuridrani is the Brumbies' key man in 2015, until he got injured. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
Expert
18th June, 2013
133
3545 Reads

Old Spiro is an ancient who should have been born in the 18th century, or at least before the modern technological age.

He struggles with new-fangled and old-fangled devices like laptops and iPhones. For about a decade he has watched all his sport on an aged television set that has the build of a Wagnerian opera singer – all front and a big back.

But on Monday, in time to watch the Brumbies play the British and Irish Lions at Canberra, he had a new, large slim-line Samsung installed. It was so easy to manage that even the ancient could work it to perfection.

For the first time in years he could see the full length of the pictures coming into his machine. And he could see the full score at the left hand top of his screen.

The picture was so clear it seemed the action was brought right into the sitting room.

The Brumbies came into the match without their stars who are on Test duty. They had, according to coach Jake White, only 28 Test caps in the entire 22 squad. Clyde Rathbone had 26 of these caps and Peter Kimlin, the captain of the Brumbies on the night, had two.

The Brumbies, on paper at least, looked as if they had a weakish pack. There was no Ben Mowen, for instance, who has been an inspirational leader and leading lineout jumper for the team. But the backline looked useful, with Matt Tomua, Rathbone, Henry Speight and Jesse Mogg being quality attacking players.

The Lions had a strong pack, again at least on paper. But Warren Gatland had gone out to the highways and byways to fill out his backline.

Three of the backs – Christian Wade, Brad Barritt and Billy Twelvetrees – are new Lions. And Shane Williams, a star Lions winger four years ago, was summoned from Japan, where he was playing rugby and preparing for a boxing match, to help out for this one match.

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Two other points are worth noting in putting this match into a tour perspective. First, the Lions last lost a provincial match back in 1997. Second, the Lions came close to losing to the Brumbies in 2001, with a try by Austin Healey on time providing a great escape and a 30 – 28 victory.

Against the Waratahs the Lions played a sensational first half. But it was the Brumbies who started strongly and maintained this momentum for most of the first half.

The Lions lineout was under some pressure and a couple of crooked throws were forced. I wondered if Robbie Deans had allowed Peter Kimlin to come out of the Wallaby camp for the match to try and get a sense of the Lions lineouts calls and plays.

The Lions backs, too, were far too deep to make break-out attacks. And towards the end of the half, the Brumbies forced a couple of penalties by digging hard for turnover ball.

Again, the success of this tactic must have pleased Deans because, with Michael Hooper and Liam Gill, he has two flankers who are must faster to the ball and better diggers for it than anyone in the Lions squad, including Sam Warburton.

With play almost up at half-time and the Brumbies leading 8-0 (the result of a terrific try by Tevita Kuridrani, who exploited tackling weaknesses by the Lions outside backs and a penalty by Jess Mogg), Greg Clarke on the Fox Sports commentary team came up with a sensational statistic: if the scoreline held it would be the first time since 1980 against the Orange Free State that a Lions side was scoreless in the first half.

As it happened, the Lions forced a penalty with time up and Stuart Hogg kicked the goal. 8-3 at half-time.

The second half was more of the same, with the Brumbies winning most of the kicking duels and knocking the Lions back on the occasional times the ball was moved along the backline.

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Let’s face it, the Lions were disappointing in the general direction of their play. They kicked incessantly, and it was usually poor kicking.

Their lineout gave away three crooked throws and three steals by the Brumbies. Even the scrum was dominant only occasionally, despite the replacement of the entire front row with 20 minutes of play left.

In fact it was three scrums at the end of the match that decided the outcome of the match.

With 10 minutes to go and with the scoreline Brumbies 14 – Lions 9, the Lions had a scrum just outside the Brumbies’ 22. A penalty or a try was an obvious outcome from this situation. But the Lions allowed the ball to spurt out.

It was snaffled by the Brumbies and, after yet another kicking duel play, was moved to inside the Lions half.

Then with only minutes of play left, the Brumbies forced another scrum, this time just outside the Lions’ 22. The Lions needed a scrum penalty or a turnover to give themselves a chance of winning.

The young Brumbies scrum held, just. Peter Kimlin, the man of the match in my view, dived on the ball as his pack began to slide backwards. The Brumbies shrewdlly went through a series of pick-and-goes to eat up the clock. The Lions were offside most of these plays but were not penalised.

There was time for one more scrum. Again the Brumbies held, just. The ball was picked up by the huge, young second-rower Etienne Ousthuizen and he booted the ball into the crowd and a glorious moment in Brumbies’ history was achieved.

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For the first time since 1971, when Queensland defeated a brilliant Lions side, an Australian provincial side had defeated a Lions side.

Now we can say that this was a mid-week match, with a mid-week Lions side. Of course this is correct. But the tenacity of the Brumbies, their smart play in the lineouts, their excellent out of hand kicking, their fearlessness in attacking the rucks and mauls and most of all their quick and decisive tackling showed the way to defeat the Lions.

The attacking defence, especially, exposed a weakness in the Lions’ play (and indeed in most British play) which is the refusal of the fly-halves to stand flat. Hogg was deep in his alignment and when Owen Farrell came on, he continued playing from depth, even deeper than Hogg in most instances.

The Brumbies were able to force the Lions back when they tried to move the ball along the backline. Mistakes were made and the Lions were reduced time and time again to kick away possession. The Brumbies were relatively safe under the high ball, something the Wallabies will need to be on Saturday at Suncorp Stadium.

The other important consideration is that the Brumbies have a habit of winning this year and they went into the match right from its outset with the body language of a team that believed that they could and would win.

Belief based on the reality of having past performances, the right tactics and players who can carry out the tactics is a powerful engine driving a team to victory.

At the end of the match, Greg Martin talked about the ‘arrogance’ of the Lions being punctured. I think this assessment is correct.

This puncturing of the arrogance is an important mental victory for Australian rugby. Shane Williams reckoned that his few days with the Lions convinced him the side had “an arrogance where they believe they can win this series”.

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Williams went on to justify the arrogance: “That’s great to have. Sometimes these tours are won mentally more than physically. The Lions are in a strong mental place at the moment.”

Looking at the shell-shocked, drained faces of the Lions players at the end of the match, I reckon that the “strong mental place” has been replaced by a weak mental place, as the contemplation that beating the Wallabies is going to be a much harder task than the earlier games on tour suggested.

The Lions were exposed as a beatable side. The tactics of putting pressure on them also exposed their lack of genuine pace around the field as a team.

None of this assures the Wallabies of a victory on Saturday night. After all, since the first Lions-Australia Test in 1899 (the Rev Mulineux’s British side), Australia has won only four Tests (one in 1899, one in 1930 and two in 2001 with one of the greatest of all Wallaby sides) and the Lions have won 14 (three in 1899, three in 1904, two in 1950, two in 1959, two in 1966, two in 1989, and one in 2001).

Knowing how to beat the Lions is one thing, doing it as history suggests is an entirely different matter. But the Wallabies now know this Lions side is not unbeatable.

The mental strength that brings victories on the rugby field, thanks to the mighty effort put up by the Brumbies, has now flowed towards the Wallabies.

Knowing how to beat the Lions is a giant leap towards actually defeating them.

– Photos by Tim Anger Photography.

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