Sublime Lions stun complacent Aussies
June 30, 2001
Lions centre Rob Henderson embraces team-mate Brian O'Driscoll at the final whistle
© Getty Images
Against expectation and despite a squad fragmented by poor management and plagued by injury, the Lions pulled off a sublime victory over the World Champion Wallabies. Australia couldn't quite believe what had hit them, either on the field or from the stands at the Gabba, described as a 'sea of red' as the fans gave the impression of a home fixture for the Lions.
Pundits' pre-match words of wisdom bit back hard after each half of the match opened with an exhilarating Lions try; the first by Jason Robinson, the second Brian O'Driscoll, set the hosts on a hopeless course of playing catch-up. Only in the final quarter did Australia rally to any effect.
The Australian press had scoffed at respect shown by Rod MacQueen, the Wallaby coach, that the Lions were the best prepared squad of tourists ever. Former Wallaby, Mark Ella, cockily announced pre-match, "I don't know what all the fuss is about....the Wallabies should easily beat them. If someone asked me would I swap any of their players for a Wallaby player, I would definitely answer 'no'". Others reckoned that 2001's Australian side was 15 points better than in 1999, when they had conceded only one try in winning the World Cup.
Complacency among Australians was countered by adversity among the Lions. Eight original selections for the tour were injured and reserve scrum-half, Matt Dawson, had published stinging criticism of the management of Donal Lenihan and Graham Henry in the Daily Telegraph on the morning of the match. He objected to the arduous training regime and apparent special treatment for some players within the squad. There were feelings of exclusion for several midweek players, but Dawson, as the one who spoke out, was condemned for exacerbating the situation.
The Wallaby players were spooked before the start. George Smith later spoke of "running out and feeling like you had no home advantage with the amount of red in the crowd". When Robinson skipped round Chris Latham for the opening try in the third minute, the wall of noise closed in further on the hosts.
Danny Grewcock's lineout take started the move for Robinson's try and he, like Martin Johnson, had a tremendous match providing quick ball for Rob Howley to distribute to rampant backs. Centres Rob Henderson and Brian O'Driscoll complimented each other perfectly with an innate sense of each other's game. Both were rocks of defence and both made breaks in attack that shredded Australia's midfield. For Robinson and Dafydd James, who scored the second try on the right wing, the centres created the extra space required.
If Australia's scrum was feeble, fly-half Stephen Larkham wasn't much better, "floating out hopeless ballooned passes", according to Stephen Jones in the Sunday Times, until he was replaced by Elton Flatley early in the second half.
A half-time score of 12-3 could have been more comprehensive had Wilkinson not been having a rare off-day with his kicking or had Joe Roff not audaciously intercepted a certain scoring pass from Henderson to O'Driscoll.
Grewcock was under the kick that started the second half and the Lions drove hard back at Australia. Howley recycled on halfway, drew the defence and O'Driscoll shot between Nathan Grey and Jeremy Paul, danced past replacement full-back Matt Burke and went over under the posts. The conversion and a Wilkinson penalty stretched the lead to 22-3.
Minutes later Henderson broke up centre field to within five metres, Howley kept the move going and Quinnell crashed over to score. 29-3 on the hour. There was a spirited rally from the Wallabies in the last quarter, which coincided with the departure of their captain, John Eales, as well as yellow cards for Martin Corry and Phil Vickery for killing possession. Flatley injected energy previously missing, allowing Andrew Walker to score on the right before Roff set up Nathan Grey for the last score of the match.
The Lions players marched down the tunnel without lapping up the adulation of their delirious fans. Johnson and his men knew that one match was not a series victory and that Australia would fight back hard the following week in Melbourne. And how they did.
With the Sydney Morning Herald Greg Growden's description of the Wallabies as "abominable" ringing in their ears, the Australian Rugby Union countered the 'sea of red' effect by issuing free gold flags and hats to home fans and demanding more vocal support.
Lions flanker Richard Hill, a hero of Brisbane, was concussed by a vicious Grey elbow to the head and didn't return after half-time, when the Lions led. Then came the Roff interception try that turned the series Australia's way.
Dafydd James races away to score © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.