The lineout that broke Lions' hearts
Tom Hamilton in Sydney
July 5, 2013
Justin Harrison plucks the all-important lineout © Getty Images
Test series involving the British & Irish Lions have recently, apart from 2005, hinged on match-deciding moments in the closing stages of the game. Morne Steyn booted the winning penalty in the second Test in 2009, Jeremy Guscott nailed the drop-goal in 1997 and this time around, Kurtley Beale slipped in the first match in Melbourne and Leigh Halfpenny's kick dropped agonisingly short in Melbourne.
The 2001 third Test was no different. The Lions had won the first game against the Australians but the Wallabies bounced back a week later to level the series going into the final Test in the now named ANZ Stadium - sound familiar? While everyone this week has spoken of the significance the final Test holds for the current crop of the Lions, there will be 15 men wearing green and gold also keen to pen their name in the history books come Saturday night.
In 2001, a lanky second-row Justin Harrison was making his debut for the Wallabies in the series-deciding Test. Other than World Cup finals, it could not have been a bigger occasion. He had only been playing rugby for a few years when the call came from Australia. He was impressing for the Brumbies and was a key part of their Super Rugby-winning side in 2001, but with John Eales and Dave Giffin establishing a formidable second-row partnership for the Wallabies during the Lions series, Harrison did not expect to get a call.
But for Giffin, disaster struck and as fate would have it, it was a mishap which led to Harrison getting the nod. "I can remember not being in the team," Harrison told ESPN. "I wasn't in the side but I was in the extended squad and our role was really just there to be practise for the Test team. John Eales had played all of the Tests that year so I was pleased to be part of the group and I wasn't expecting to be part of the team.
"And it wasn't until Thursday that Dave came to my room in the hotel telling me he had been ruled out of the Test with a hamstring injury. It's a strange set of circumstances as I was told before anyone else had told me what had gone on and that was before Rod MacQueen knew."
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It was an "enormously significant" moment in Harrison's life. For those of us who have never been anywhere near a Test cap, it is hard to fathom exactly what emotions you would feel if you were in Harrison's shoes when then Wallabies boss MacQueen confirmed he would making his debut in the series-deciding match. Harrison revealed he felt a multitude of different feelings.
"At the time you try and be as cool and circumspect as possible and try and respond in a professional manner knowing full well that inside you are excited but on the exterior you have to reassure the coach you are ready. It was nerve-wracking but it was a hugely significant moment in my life. But MacQueen didn't want me to tell the Lions which was hard and I failed miserably, I rang just about everyone I knew within 30 minutes of finding out."
For Harrison, any luxury of going into the match under the radar was snatched away from him by Austin Healey's comments in a newspaper article which labelled Harrison a 'pod', a 'plank' and an 'ape' - the two had exchanged verbal's and some handbags during the Brumbies' game against the Lions in the week between the first and second Tests.
Despite the media hysteria surrounding Healey's comments, Harrison was blissfully unaware of them until he found some fruit outside his hotel room door. "Joe Roff had left some bananas outside my hotel room door which I didn't know was him playing a joke. I thought it was normal protocol for that to happen, dietary requirements.
Justin Harrison gets to know Austin Healey © Getty Images
"So I was grazing on a banana and went down for breakfast and there were numerous copies of the newspaper spread out on the table and I saw Joe sniggering over by the breakfast buffet and he turned around and I became aware that there was something going on. It certainly wasn't anything that motivated me to perform any better, I was steering myself for the Test. And something someone who had written about me who was on a plane back to Europe, which was entirely incorrect, didn't bother me in the slightest.
"Something Healey has always said is that all I did for Australia was win one lineout for the Wallabies and I haven't done anything since, but my retort for that is that all he did was write about me in a match he wasn't even playing. So in terms of sledging that's all I need to say. He's a nice enough guy but I won't be looking him up for a coffee next time I'm in London."
Any attempt at putting Harrison off his game from Healey failed miserably. He inked his name into the Lions' significant and length history in the 78th minute of the game. Australia were leading 29-23 but the Lions had a lineout about eight metres from the Wallabies' line. Keith Wood took hold of the ball and threw it with Martin Johnson his intended recipient. But instead, Harrison plucked the ball from the Lions' grasp. It proved to be the pivotal moment in the series.
"It's quite flattering that it was such a memorable occurrence. But for me it was about fulfilling my role as a second-row with the role to contest lineout. Luckily I was able to contribute to the role of the team and luckily the result went our way. I was pleased to have some sort of bearing on the Test result. There were many other players who excelled on the night, Matt Burke, Johnny Herbert and Joe Roff for example. But luckily it didn't look like I was out of place."
Lions tours can be the making or breaking of some players. For Harrison, it was the making of him. He went on to make 33 more appearances for the Wallabies and unlike many who came before him and have since either played for the tourists or against them, he can always say that he was part of a side that won a series against the Lions.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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