First Test a year away

Exactly a year from today, the Lions will begin a mouth-watering Test series with the Wallabies. [more]

First Test a year away

Exactly a year from today, the Lions will begin a mouth-watering Test series with the Wallabies.

In just 12 months, 52 weeks or 365 days, Britain and Ireland’s elite will face the current Tri Nations kings in Brisbane in the first of three internationals on successive Saturdays.

After an opening tour clash with the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1 and five more warm-up fixtures in Australia, the Lions will get down to the real business of toppling the world’s second best side in their own backyard.

It’s all set to be a hugely entertaining encounter, especially when you consider what happened the last time the two teams met in the same city some 12 years ago.

While the Wallabies may have won the war back in 2001 thanks to victories in Melbourne and Sydney, it was the Lions who won the first battle in Brisbane.

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The 29-13 success at The Gabba in the first tour of the 21st century has to rank as one of the greatest in Lions history – a stunning success that featured some sublime rugby and shocked the reigning World Champions and the entire Australian nation.

A brilliant performance during the first 50 minutes put the Lions out of sight as four tries destroyed Wallaby hopes in front of a sea of red in Queensland’s capital city.

Jason Robinson started the party by skipping past Chris Latham on a sixpence inside the opening three minutes, while Brian O’Driscoll scored a memorable individual try in his first Test appearance in Lions colours.

Welshmen Dafydd James and Scott Quinnell also broke through the Australian defence as a Lions side that had been written off prior to departure produced a performance to match any that had gone before.

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Brian O'Driscoll scored for the Lions the last time they were in Brisbane

And it wasn’t just on the field that the Lions excelled that night. The Australians were not only outplayed but out sung, out supported and out shone in the stands, the streets and the bars in Brisbane. In short, Saturday, June 22, 2001 was something truly spectacular.

“I still rank that first Test in Brisbane as one of the best-ever atmospheres for a game. That’s what the Lions brings: it just adds that something special,” said Lions lock Danny Grewcock, who started all three Tests in ’01.

“As soon as we left the team meeting on the Saturday and made the trip on the coach, there was a flood of red jerseys that surrounded the hotel and the whole journey to the stadium. That set the tone for atmosphere.

“And then we went into the stadium for what was as far away as any away game could possibly be, yet we appeared to be the team playing at home because of the support we had. All the guys looked at the stadium and it was almost as if you could count the Aussie supporters on one hand. It appeared to be a Lions sell out: red jersies just flooded the arena.

"We got a good start. They were the World Champions, they were the Tri Nations Champions and they were a team that had been there and done it all. We’d had a relatively tough tour travelling around Australia and perhaps the expectation on us wasn’t too high for that first Test, but the boys pulled out a performance and we were very well rewarded and supported by the thousands of people who had gone out there and spent a lot of money.

“Australia’s a big country, with long distances to travel and it’s not a cheap place to come out to but there were thousands upon thousands of Lions supporters there. I remember walking off the pitch with Jason Leonard, down the steps to the tunnel and the changing rooms with all the supporters there after the game and looking around and thinking ‘jeez, what was that about’.

“No one could have predicted the support – it was just amazing. They definitely played a part in the team getting it right in that first Test.”

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The Lions supporters were incredible in 2001, especially in the first Test 

If the Lions get everything right next summer then the Brisbane Test could set the platform for a first series victory since 1997. The Lions have endured a full house of series defeats against the three southern hemisphere giants since Jerry Guscott’s last-gasp drop goal gave them an unassailable 2-0 series lead against the Springboks 15 years ago and 2012 has to be the time to change all that.

Bucking the recent trend will be no easy feat, though, especially when you consider the talent the Wallabies will have at their disposal in a year’s time. The likes of James O’Connor, Will Genia, Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale can change a game in the blink of an eye and the Lions will have to be at their very best just to compete on the other side of the globe.

But while the task that lies ahead next summer is a daunting one to say the least, it’s also an exciting prospect, the kind that every British and Irish player lives for. And with a whole host of young talent pressing their claims for a tour sport and with the Home Nations running their southern hemisphere counterparts close this summer, tour manager Andy Irvine is cautiously optimistic that celebrations could once again be on the cards in Brisbane.

“I would pay money to go and watch the Wallabies every week,” said Irvine, who was the Lions’ chairman in South Africa in 2009.

“They have obviously got some world-class backs. To me, people like Quade Cooper, Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor, Will Genia, you would want to see people like that play. They are fantastic players and great entertainers.

“Having said that, we have one or two good ones ourselves. We’ve got some great young prospects and also one or two very experienced individuals who have been there and done it all and hopefully will be fit and raring to go next year.

“With that combination of old heads and young talent I would hope we can throw the ball around with the best of them.”

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