One week out from the first Wallabies-Lions Test in Brisbane and predicting a winner all points to which team holds its nerve on the biggest stage for several years.
There has been so much build-up to this game and, like they did 12 years ago, the British and Irish Lions will no doubt go into this game with a great sense of confidence.
The advice a player who was there 12 years ago (though it feels like yesterday) could bring to the table for today’s players is don’t get shocked by the speed and physicality of the confrontation ahead of you.
The mistake the Wallabies made in 2001 was that we were confident going into the series because we had taken on the best in the southern hemisphere. Playing New Zealand and South Africa on regular occasions, we thought, surely, that would be enough to shut down the Lions. We had prepared what we thought was well enough for a regular Test. We were wrong. We soon realised this Test wasn’t going to be regular in any sense of the word.
The mental strength needed for a series like this is going to be the difference between winning or losing. The closeness of the players’ attributes aren’t easily separated at this top level and it seems like the anticipation of an event like this can define performances and sometimes careers. It seems easy to see why players find the occasion overwhelming. You could equate it to competing at an Olympic Games, and how some athletes shine at their first attempt and other struggle to make the grade.
The physical prowess of both teams will be something to be admired. My counterpart Paul Cully wrote about who would have the advantage going into the series in certain positions. His conclusion was that it would be difficult to separate, so it would come down to which coach devises the best game plan.
One method of playing was on show last week with the Reds giving it their best shot at overcoming the visitors. They came with the notion of being physical, but the key was the speed of play. The movement of the ball and the width of the passing of on the field stressed the Lions at Suncorp Stadium. The Lions defence was put under pressure by the passing of Quade Cooper. His ability to shift the point of contact with those long passes just asked a few questions at times and the response was interesting to see.
Like any method of attack, if you are straight up and down, it’s easy to communicate who you have in defence. The difficulty lies when bodies are running at you in different directions, and different voices calling for the ball. That puts you under pressure.
For all intents and purposes you have to play direct. There is the battle of physicality to win, but to have the ability to play the ball wider than one off the breakdown is becoming a bigger task. If the game plan is to try and smash them off the park, the Wallabies will be chasing their tail. Australian rugby has always taken pride in itself by being a smart team.
The interesting decision to send Dave Dennis and Rob Horne back to play for the Waratahs may indicate the Wallabies will play with Christian Lealiifano at No. 12. If this is the way the selectors go, I can only say, well done. I think that’s a smart move to have another ball player to take some of the decision making away from the five-eighth, whoever that may be.
Holding the ball for long phases and constructing play will eventually provide mismatches in the opposition defensive lines. They will have their systems in place to repel attack after attack, but those players who have that uncanny ability to see a gap and work some magic will come to the fore. The Wallabies need ball movement and continuity of play, not one-out rugby. That would play into the hands of the tourists.
There has been a lot of hype leading into this series, and rightly so. The pace, the speed and the physicality will be another level higher, but if the players prepare well upstairs, the physicality the Wallabies can produce will be equal, if not better than the opposition.
It’s a privilege to represent your country, family, friends and those who have gone before you. Be ready, don’t get shocked or surprised by the occasion and as a former Wallabies coach used to say to us before we ran out, “Enjoy the experience.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.