The fresh-faced Lion
May 21, 2013
Matt Perry clears the ball against Australia 'A' © PA Photos
By his own admission, Matt Perry "looked about ten" when he ran out in Brisbane for the British & Irish Lions' first Test in 2001.
Nicknamed 'the Gabbatoir' by the locals, instead of the swathes of green and gold laden shirts which typically greeted the Wallabies or the Australian cricket team, Perry and the other 14 men chosen by Graham Henry to represent the four nations were met by a wall of red. It was similar to the passionate, partisan support Munster reap the rewards from at Thomond Park. But it was on a larger scale and on a foreign field some 10,000 miles away from his Bath home.
For Perry, the experience had capped an incredible quintet of years. Five seasons earlier, he made his debut for Bath; two years later he was part of the team propelled into West Country immortality after they won the Heineken Cup against Brive. He had followed in his father and grandfather's footsteps in turning out for his local side, but unlike his elders, he achieved the feat of being picked by the Lions.
In 1997 he was sitting in Widcombe's Ring O Bells when he saw Bath team-mate Jeremy Guscott slot the series-clinching drop-goal against the Springboks; four years on and when a letter embossed in Lions branding landed on his doormat, he knew he had just been handed, as he puts it, "Willy Wonka's golden ticket".
At the time, he had 36 Test caps - a feat which still sees him hold the distinction of being England's most-capped fullback. Little did he know his try-scoring substitute appearance against France in April 2001 would be his last cap for the national side. So he bounded to Australia with a wonderful innocence and eagerness to emulate the 1997 crop.
After missing the tour opener against Western Australia, a match where his good friend and fellow Bath back Iain Balshaw got the nod, he got his chance against the Queensland Presidents XV. While the match and the next for Perry against Australia 'A' passed without much incident, the brutality of southern hemisphere rugby and the intensity of a Lions tour hit home when he faced the Waratahs.
It was a match that has now gone down in history as one of the Lions' most brutal encounters with Duncan McRae's off-the-ball and seemingly unprovoked assault on Ronan O'Gara a deplorable incident.
Perry, who had come on as a second-half substitute, realised then exactly what was in store come the first Test. He told ESPN: "The game had a bit of a sour taste. I came off the bench for that game and replaced Balsh. There was something in the atmosphere; you could kind of sense it.
"Obviously what happened with Ronan and McRae, the game went from being highly intense to a completely different level. It was a strange evening as that level of violence on the field is rare. I had never played in another match like that as the incident was so isolated - it was like a street fight."
© PA Photos
A week after they faced the Waratahs, Perry and his fellow Lions were running out in Brisbane. But the seven days running up to the Test were far from ordinary. It was a time shrouded by grief while outspoken columns from a couple of players ruined the camp's sanctity. "The build up to the Test was quite sad as one of the guys who had looked after us - Anton - had been on a boat trip, suffered a heart attack and had passed away," Perry explained. "It was awful, he was one of our team members ... we felt that.
"There was a lot going on on the tour with players writing articles..." Perry's voice tails off at this point, perhaps checking what he is to say next, or maybe he has been struck by the weight of nostalgia.
But he soon continues: "The main thing about the Lions is when you come through that door, you leave your nationality behind and it is all about the badge. But there were a few things that happened on tour which meant we had to constantly go back to remembering we were one team and to come back together.
"The build up was pretty intense in Brisbane, a hot bed of rugby. At that point, we had been playing constantly so the body and mind were not necessarily knackered, but we were tiring. It was a case of analysing what we had going for us as we looked to get into the Aussies and try and win.
"So overall, it was a less intense build-up on the legs, but a much more intense mental preparation. With Blackie [coach Steve Black] there, we did a lot about visualisation and looked at various situations."
Matt Dawson's tour diary was thrown to the masses the night before the first Test. The notion of players writing columns or diaries from within the camp had already caused tension with Keith Wood reportedly turning down the offer while Dawson and Austin Healey jumped at the chance. Dawson's comments suggested disharmony within the camp while he also criticised Henry's coaching methods.
It had the same effect as feeding a Wallaby honey; the local public and media lapped it up while the Australian team watched on as the Lions attempted to prevent imploding.
Perry refrains from putting the boot into either of the half-backs, but he does concede the comments did little to improve squad harmony and the implications "chipped away" at the culture. Despite the external media circus gathering around the side, they rallied to beat the Wallabies 29-13 in the first Test.
Perry finds himself sandwiched between Elton Flatley and Justin Harrison © Getty Images
Come the second Test against the Australians, which Perry started, the Lions found themselves 11-6 up half-time and within 40 minutes of securing the series. But the Australians fought back to win. It was a match, and in the end a series, which pivoted devilishly on two moments in that second-half.
"When you are performing at that high level it is a fine line. There was the Joe Roff intercept and the elbow on Hilly - those two incidents changed the whole series. And then playing in Sydney that was always going to be a tough ask. We had a few injuries in the party and a few people were hanging on.
"We were only five metres away in the last Test of getting that try and with Jonny's inevitable conversion, we'd have won it. But we didn't have that cutting edge. Had we come out in the second Test in the second-half and scored a try then I'm in no doubt that we'd have won the series."
Their third Test loss, which Perry started despite suffering a back injury, meant they had failed to emulate the 1997 crop but rather than journey back to Bath with his tail between his legs, he had achieved something he never imagined would be on his radar; playing a Test, in the end three, for the Lions.
Perry eventually retired in 2008, with no more England caps to his name nor silverware for Bath, but the memory of 2001 is something he still holds close to him. A highlight was looking on from his room in the Lions' high-rise hotel prior to the first Test in Brisbane and seeing what looked like red ants prowling the streets of the Australian city.
While the series win was taken away from Perry, the memory of being involved in a Lions camp is one only a few are privileged enough to hold on to.
"You have four teams who bash the crap out of each other in the Six Nations. And then you are put in a room and told to create a vision of how to beat one of the best teams in the world. That's the magic of the Lions. You are told to look beyond things like nationality and embrace them as your team-mate, it's unique."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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