The British and Irish Lions tour of Australia spluttered to a controversial start when Western Force coach Michael Foley withdrew his top players from the game.
His reason, he was saving them for last Sunday’s Super 15 game against the Waratahs.
Fans immediately began calling for Foley’s dismissal, saying he had disrespected his players, the Lions, the paying public and the rugby public at large.
Wallaby centre Adam Ashley-Cooper commended the Force players for not complaining, but said they had been denied “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play against the Lions”.
The depleted-Force lost to the Lions 69-17. Despite Foley’s tactics, the Force went on to loose to the Waratahs 28-13. To make matters worse, the Waratahs had 10 players out through national-team commitments, and a further seven players injured.
Lions Tour Alive
But the Lions Tour came alive in the rugby heartland of Brisbane on Saturday (June 8). Reds fans and Lions fans were out in force in the city through the day, then they packed Suncorp Stadium to watch a thrilling game, won by the Lions 22-12.
It had become almost certain that Wallaby coach Robbie Deans had no intention of picking star flyhalf Quade Cooper. So the fans, the team and most of Queensland had their hackles up—and were out to prove a point.
And what a point coach Ewen McKenzie and Cooper proved. Cooper single-handedly re-engineered the game, by running the ball from everywhere.
The Lions were bigger and better at the set pieces, so McKenzie had Cooper try to run them off their feet, giving the Reds their only chance of victory.
Cooper stuck to the plan irrespective of field position and despite consistent rain in the second half. The high-pace plan did nothing to limit the physical clashes, with both sides courageous in contact.
The Lions backs look exciting, but winger Tommy Bowe broke a bone in his hand.
After the game, McKenzie had a word for Deans: “All we did was present a way to put them under pressure. Whether someone wants to mimic that—we’ll see.”
Former Reds and Wallabies coach Eddie Jones virtually accused Deans of playing mind games with Cooper.
“Please, don’t treat the rugby public to the sham of media speak on Quade Cooper,” Jones wrote, addressing Deans in his News Limited newspaper column.
Jones—like many—rates Cooper as Australia’s best flyhalf and described criticism of him as “rubbish”.
“Deans does not forgive players who cross him,” Jones wrote. “Just ask Andrew Mehrtens and Matt Giteau.”
Other big names that can be added to that list include Tana Umaga and Christian Cullen.
Speaking to reporters at the Wallaby’s training camp on Sunday June 9, Deans confirmed Cooper’s omission.
“We’ve obviously not included him [Cooper] in the additional six at this stage, but as you’ve seen [with injuries], things happen quickly.
“This is a 3-Test campaign and nothing surprises you in this industry.
“Quade is a huge talent, we understand what he is capable of. We’ve now settled on the squad and we’ll get on with our opportunity,” said Deans.
That squad controversially includes troubled full-back Kurtley Beale. Beale, who was stood down by the Rebels following numerous alcohol-fuelled incidences, had admitted himself into a private rehabilitation facility and checked out last week.
Wallaby fans are divided over Deans. His supporters consider his cautious approach to be sensible. His critics see Deans as a flawed coach, a flawed selector and flawed personality, who polarises players and fans.
Deans was just as divisive when he left New Zealand to take up the Wallaby job. He had been over-looked as the All Blacks coach, despite being the most successful coach in the Super 15, having won seven titles with the Crusaders.
Furious Crusaders fans—the team is based on the South Island province of Canterbury—said they would support the Deans-coached Wallabies over the All Blacks.
Now, some Wallaby fans are saying they hope the Lions win—thus signalling the removal of Deans.
Lions vs Combined NSW-QLD Country
On Tuesday night (June 11) the Lions played a Combined NSW-QLD Country team. The visitors won easily 64-nil, including 10 trys and 7 conversions.
While there remains suggestions that the Lions are far from sharp enough to take on the Wallabies—the No.2 team in the world—the run-away victory on Tuesday night was not unexpected. Although the combined team featured some Super Rugby players (nine), the team also comprised amateur players representing their states.
This Saturday (June 15), the Lions will meet NSW Waratahs who are currently seventh on the Super Rugby standings. The Lions will then play the ACT Brumbies who sit on top of the Super Rugby standings.
These two matches will be the Lions’ last “warm-up” before the first of three Tests against the Wallabies.
Then, the pieces of the Deans’ and the Wallaby selectors’ puzzle will either begin to fall into place or disarray.
NZ vs France
Meanwhile, in Auckland, New Zealand beat France 23-13, in the first of three Tests.
France played better than was expected, though both teams were less than perfect. Both were perfect in their attitude, though, with the All Blacks having to wrest the game from a determined France.
A satisfied-looking France captain Thierry Dusautoir summed up the game: “We were close to the All Blacks, but we made too many mistakes. They got a lot of opportunity due to our mistakes.”
All Black captain Kieran Read said: “A tough, tough Test match. I think it’s something to build off and we’ll certainly be happy with the result there.”
SA vs Italy
South Africa beat Italy 44-10 in Durban—but the Springboks fans are still unhappy. They are among the most-knowledgeable in the world and they have high expectations of the Springboks.
For them, a comprehensive victory is usually marred with any number of unforgivable, individual errors.
The response to the landslide victory over Italy can be summed up by what one fan said: “I expect a better performance next week.”
Winger Bryan Habana was outstanding, continuing his return to top form this year.
Peter Lalanaabaravi is a rugby writer with over 30 years experience.