Cameron Blades knows all about mixing it with the British & Irish Lions and he has promised his Combined Country XV "will climb into the Lions" in Newcastle on Tuesday night.
Former Qantas Wallaby prop Blades played twice against the 2001 Lions, tasting success with Australia A before losing with New South Wales. Both were occasions that have stuck long in his mind and he can’t wait for a third crack at the tourists, this time as head coach.
“Both games I remember really well – one because we beat the Lions and the other because it was my last game for New South Wales. To beat such an iconic team as the Lions with Australia A was certainly one of my career highlights,” said Blades.
“The game with New South Wales was memorable for other reasons. Everyone thought it was a conspiracy to come out and disrupt the Lions, but it was more about four or five of us playing our last games for New South Wales and wanting to give it our all.
“They hadn’t been the most gracious of losers after the game against Australia A, so we made a pact to go out there and put it to them. We had a dig and there was one incident in the game that was unnecessary and dealt with – the rest of it was good, old fashioned, hard rugby.”
That one unnecessary and unsavoury moment was the all out assault on Ronan O’Gara by Duncan McRae that left the Irish outside half battered, bloodied and bruised, and McRae with a red card and a seven week ban.
There is no suggestion Blades’ side will try to replicate those tactics and he has spent the last few days trying to piece together a team and a game plan, rather than rousing his troops.
“We will be looking to climb into them from the start and I’m really confident that my players will leave nothing out on the field. We will be as competitive as we can and there will be a lot of aggression in the contact area and a lot of movement when we have the ball,” said Blades.
“We want to play at a high tempo, but a lot will depend on if the first couple of passes stick and how our attacks build. But we haven’t got a Quade Cooper in our side who can open them up with a 30 metre pass.
“You have to remember that we will be going into the game off three training runs and a lot of these players have never played together before. As a coach I’m really excited at the prospect of taking on the Lions again, but I’m more excited for the players who will be having this once in a career chance to play against such a major touring team.”
Blades was mightily impressed by what he saw from the Lions in Brisbane on Saturday and believes everything is building to a wonderful test series against the Qantas Wallabies. Last weekend’s game cost him the services of Reds star Beau Robinson, but the livewire flanker still turned up for training to help out his team mates.
“I thought the Lions were outstanding against the Reds. I have been impressed with them all along the way on this tour. They can play the game in a variety of ways and it will be interesting to see what approach they take against us,” added Blades.
“When you are picking from the best of four nations you are going to come up with a world class team. Losing Beau Robinson is obviously a blow, but the decision not to allow him to play because of his head knock on Saturday is the right one.
“Even so, what Beau has been able to do is pass on his passion, professionalism and enthusiasm to the rest of the players and give them an insight into what it was like to play against the Lions last weekend.
“We are massive underdogs on Tuesday night and so it is more about performance than anything else. Nobody will be disappointed if we are behind on the scoreboard. And, if we manage to get a victory, it is going to be something that everyone will remember for a very long time.
“This is a chance for the country players to measure themselves against some of the best players in the world. Just look at our two young centres up against Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Roberts.
“It is another step along the rugby career pathway for these players, a chance to put their name up in lights. It is always hard to know where you stand in the pecking order until you play in a game and an occasion like this.”