Stirling’s second chance

Wallaby legend Stirling Mortlock hasn't ruled out ending his stellar career on an almighty high by finally facing the Lions in 2013. [more]

Stirling’s second chance

Wallaby legend Stirling Mortlock hasn’t ruled out ending his stellar career on an almighty high by finally facing the Lions in 2013.

The former Australia skipper missed out through injury in 2001 but is playing well enough to ensure a second chance to take on the combined might of Britain and Ireland’s elite may still come his way in two years’ time.

Having not featured for his country since 2009, it’s unlikely that opportunity will arrive in gold and green but the growing likelihood of a clash with the Melbourne Rebels featuring on the tourists’ itinerary means Mortlock may well be able to add the Lions to his lengthy list of achievements.

“I think you’re pretty lucky if you end up playing against the Lions in a series,” said Mortlock, who became the fastest Australian to reach 50 and 100 Test points before injury robbed him of a spot against the Lions.

“Injuries have played a fair old part in my career but that’s the way it is. Unfortunately, I was injured for that whole season in 2001.

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“I was very lucky to actually go to all three matches. They were fantastic occasions. A Lions series is an event in itself and the support and respect that team has is just phenomenal.

“When it does come around in a couple of years, I’ll look forward to a sea of red and hopefully a quality Wallaby outfit that’s up for the challenge.”

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Stirling Mortlock should have faced the Lions a decade ago

As for how realistic his desire to stick around will prove to be, Mortlock admits it will be a case of wait and see.

Now 34, Mortlock has been in solid form this term after missing the entire Australian domestic and international campaign in 2010 with a back injury and, if the Rebels’ recent end-of-season tour of Britain and Ireland is a reliable marker, he still has plenty to offer the sport.

“Who knows?’ was Mortlock’s response to a possible Lions’ send off, although his reply was accompanied by the broadest of smiles and a look that suggested punters would be unwise to bet against it.

“At this stage I certainly haven’t got any particular mindset as to when I want to retire.

“I haven’t retired from international rugby but I don’t think that call will come. I had a back operation about a year and a quarter ago and my aim was to get back playing top footy and then to give myself an opportunity to play for the Wallabies. But they’ve chosen another direction and that seems to be going pretty well.

“Physically I feel pretty good. It’s been really pleasing from my point of view that my body’s coming back – it was a pretty long time that I was away.

“A big part of the reason I wanted to come here to Melbourne was to build a team and wind back my career into life after rugby as well. I’m focussed on building this team and we’ll see how my body and mind copes along the way to determine whether I’m around in a couple of years.”

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Mortlock won 80 caps for Australia and was always in thick of the action

Even if Mortlock decided to call it a day before the Lions arrive Down Under, the city of Melbourne looks to be in great shape to welcome the world’s most famous touring team and their legions upon legions of travelling support.

The last time the Lions were in town, the Colonial Stadium hosted the second Test between the Lions and the Wallabies but it was the only stop in the city on the 10-match tour. This time around, Melbourne could well host a non-Test fixture as well thanks to the Rebels’ introduction as Australia’s fifth Super 15 franchise.

The Super 15 newcomers may have finished bottom of the pile in 2011 but their debut season was full of promise both off and on the field.

And if progress can continue to be made between now and 2013, then the Lions and their supporters could be heading towards a truly memorable experience in Melbourne, particularly if the Rebels’ community efforts encourage a bigger fan base for the sport in what will always be the heartland of Australian Rules Football.

“I really hope that, by that stage, we’ve really built on the foundations we’ve laid this season. If we get the opportunity to either host a Lions Test match in Melbourne or get to a play a touring match there, or both, it would be a big coup for our city.

I think so far the Rebels’ have been a really positive story. Results wise, we’d like to have done a little better but the initiatives we’ve embarked on have all been really positive, in particular our connection with the community which has been fantastic.

“Our season ticket holders and our support base has been amazing. The guys are doing a really fantastic job of trying to get out into the community to help grow the game and that’s really pleasing.

“The hardest thing is that we’re a new team and we’re trying to learn how to play together as a group. Everyone wants to get to the end result but there’s a process involved in getting there. Sometimes that can be really frustrating, and it has been. That’s where we’re at at the moment but we’ve got a few good guys coming in and we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”

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The creation of the Rebels appears to be aiding Australian Rugby 

Much was made of the decision to increase Australia’s Super Rugby contingent from four to five, with critics suggesting that the country couldn’t cope with another professional outfit.

Detractors voiced their concerns that playing numbers would be spread too thinly in a nation where rugby union plays fourth fiddle to AFL, league and cricket and that the result would either be a very poor Rebels team or a weakening of the four sides already representing Australia.

In reality, neither of those assessments has proven true. Yes, the Rebels were the league’s lowest ranked side last term but they came close to picking up more than their three wins and showed enough to suggest that they won’t be bottom of the pile in 2012. And as for the rest, the Brumbies and Force might not have lived up to expectations but the Waratahs made the Play-Offs and the Reds picked up the country’s first Super Rugby crown since 2004.

Mortlock admits that the pressure to find top talent has been pushed to new limits but that that in itself is no bad thing. The ex-Brumbies star believes the Wallabies are already reaping the benefits of the birth of the Rebels and will continue to do so for years to come.

“Having another team in Australia has stretched the resources slightly but, having said that, it will really be good for Australian Rugby in another two or three years.

“We had nine young blokes on tour in England and Ireland all getting an opportunity to play. A lot of the guys in this team have come back from far and wide when a lot of them wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do that without the Rebels.

“I think it’s been really positive for Australian Rugby already. The thing for us is to hopefully develop more Wallabies and some more local Melbourne talent.”

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