Thriller buries ghost of McRae
Tom Hamilton in Sydney
June 15, 2013
Duncan McRae was there in spirit © Getty Images
There was no repeat of Duncan McRae's thuggery, but the game between the British & Irish Lions and the Waratahs did not want for physicality. Every single player would have hurt after this match. The crowd cheered every time Jamie Roberts took the ball into contact and wiped out about three men in blue shirts, eventually to his own cost, while Will Skelton's 135kg frame caused the Lions to manhandle him at the first opportunity.
New South Wales may be the hotbed of the 13-man form of the game in Australia, but Saturday night was a union occasion. Tickets for the match sold out in 30 minutes and for the 'Tahs, who average 20,000 gates, selling 45,500 that quickly is testament to the intrigue that surrounds the Lions.
It is also great news for rugby union in this part of the world. The headlines on the back pages of the newspapers are still dominated by State of Origin matters but on Saturday 'Tahs captain Dave Dennis featured on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Waratahs have been around for a while but they would have experienced few nights like tonight.
The stadium was filled with intermingled blue and red shirts. The free flags handed out by the Waratahs pre-game, courtesy of omnipresent sponsor HSBC, worked well with supporters keen to wave them at every opportunity. For the Lions supporters, their standard chant broke out whenever there was the sniff of a try. And they were quick to adopt Simon Zebo as a new crowd favourite, his two syllable surname lends itself easily to the same format as the Lions chant.
Unoriginal but effective.
And the same goes for their headgear. There are jester hats complete with the four colours of the home nations while furry lions bonnets are also popular.
But while Zebo's trickery and evasive running put paid to the 'slabs of red meat' headline from the Sydney Morning Herald - they now have a poll in the paper judging the quality of the 'meat' based on the Lions' style of play - there were displays of brute force on the field.
While there was no 'biff' akin to 2001, Roberts' shift in the midfield would have caused bumps and bruises in the Waratahs ranks. Tom Carter's early tackle on Tom Youngs caused intakes of breath while Zebo was on the wrong end of a lazy forearm in the second 40. And Skelton's helter-skelter run for Jonathan Sexton in the build-up to the Waratahs' first try left the Irish fly-half prone on the Sydney turf. Sexton was at the centre of the 'Tahs attention with numerous hits going in on the half-back and they also did their best to wind up Mike Phillips.
Jonathan Sexton finds himself on the wrong end of a Waratahs double-decker © Getty Images
Unlike the Lions' management, the crowd love those sorts of moments. And they also like their flowing backs moves. The 'Tahs try may not have been as good as Luke Morahan's incredible solo effort last week but it was a good effort nonetheless.
But while they enjoy the flowing rugby, they are not a fan of penalties. There is a Barbarians-esque mentality that accompanies these warm-up matches. The Lions' decision to opt for the points when given the chance prompted outcry in the stands. Sitting five metres from my spot in the stands was a 50-something gent, complete with two pairs of glasses, who was not enjoying the kick-for-the-posts mentality.
"Get some heart you Lions" was one verbal lobby, quickly followed up by "pathetic reds".
The referee also did little to endear himself to the home crowd with his officious operating of the breakdown the centre of their dismay and to coach Michael Cheika as he insinuated post-match. And a Lions supporter was also less than impressed by the state of the stadium's toilets - he walked into the press box at half-time holding a lion mask asking the assembled scribes to report on how bad the facilities were. He was then escorted out.
Whether he makes it to the Tests is unknown, but the Lions will be back in Sydney in three weeks time. The Lions have now whetted the appetite here with a performance packed with power, sleight of hand and precision. They will need that and more if they are to beat the Wallabies but if the series is locked at one apiece going into the final game in Sydney, then there will be few better places for it to take place.
The 2013 tour is now at the halfway mark in terms of games and the Lions are finding their strut. The ghosts of the 2001 match between the Waratahs and the Lions have been rightfully buried by a tonight's spectacle of thrilling rugby and physicality.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
"The only thing that will stop this England team from becoming a great team is themselves. They need to ask themselves 'what can we be?'" The Phil Vickery column
The latest Monday Maul looks at the hectic final weekend, the Lions hangover, the superb Mike Brown and the 'selfie'
"At the crux of this England team is a lack of fear, they are not afraid to throw playbooks out of the window." Tom Hamilton reports from Twickenham
"These little deft touches, the nuances O'Driscoll has perfected are what Ireland will miss most." Tom Hamilton on Brian O'Driscoll's final Test in Dublin