Western Force head coach Michael Foley has fond memories of the last time the British & Irish Lions were in town.
Foley’s Super XV franchise host Britain and Ireland’s elite at Patersons Stadium in Perth on Wednesday, 12 years after the former hooker tasted Test glory with the Wallabies against the same opposition.
The man charged with attempting to put an early spanner in The Lions’ nine-match Australian adventure this time around was taken aback by the fanaticism of both sets of supporters in 2001 when he started all three internationals as the hosts edged a thrilling series 2-1.
“I just remember playing an outstanding Lions side and feeling very fortunate to have come out of a very tight series with a close win. That series could have gone either way and it’s something you look back on very fondly,” said Foley.
“It was one of those times that I felt the contest was happening off the field as well as on it. The Gabba Test in Brisbane was a completely red crowd. To then go to Melbourne, when the series was on the line, and to see so much support, and almost a competitive environment in the stands, was very inspirational.
“A lot of times as a player you shut out what’s happening outside of the white lines, but that moment when you run on and see all your fans there was a really lovely experience. You more than often don’t think too much about that but it was just too obvious to miss.
“That continued again in Sydney, which is such a great venue, and it was packed with gold and red.”
Foley expects Force supporters 'to be out in numbers' on Wednesday night but one thing he isn’t expecting is for the latest pride of Lions to live up to the stereotype of ‘slabs of red meat’ bandied around in the Australian media in the aftermath of Warren Gatland’s squad announcement at the end of April.
Gatland’s troops began their tour with an eight-try victory over the Barbarians in Hong Kong on Saturday and Foley is convinced they will produce far more than just a power-based game, both against his side and against the Qantas Wallabies later this month.
“The size and power of the backs could easily give you a misconception that they’ll only play direct – I think they’ll play expansively,” added Foley, who was an assistant coach with Bath before heading back home with the national side and then the Waratahs.
“Their No9s and No10s are not only passing players but running threats. You saw that from Mike Phillips in particular in Hong Kong.
“They have a forward pack that’s very versatile. You look at some of their front rowers even, (Mako) Vunipola, (Matt) Stevens, guys like that who are very, very good on the ball, not just at the setpiece.
“Matt’s so experienced now. I knew Matt when he was first starting at Bath. He knows his way around the setpiece and you would say he’s bordering on a master of the dark arts but, at the same time, he has a wonderful spirit of playing the game in the open. When Warren talks about playing the game expansively, I think you’ll see Vunipola, Stevens and guys like that feature.
“Paul O’Connell had a couple of great runs on the weekend and anyone who thinks Paul is nothing more than a setpiece player was sadly mistaken when they watched him run around in Hong Kong.
“I think it’s a side that’s going to develop as the tour goes on. They’ll be targeting that development and cohesion and there’s a number of games for them to play before that first Test. They’ve got plenty to offer as a squad.”