McRae still in firing line

The British & Irish Lions will return to the ground that featured one of the most brutal attacks ever on a rugby field when they meet the HSBC Waratahs in game five of their 2013 tour. [more]

McRae still in firing line

The British & Irish Lions will return to the ground that featured one of the most brutal attacks ever on a rugby field when they meet the HSBC Waratahs in game five of their 2013 tour.

The Allianz Stadium in Sydney was the venue for the last game between the two teams in 2001 and it isn’t the fact the Lions won convincingly by 41-24 in a game of nine tries that everyone remembers. Instead, they instantly recall the savage attack on Ronan O’Gara by opposite number Duncan McRae.

This week in Sydney, McRae admitted that the 11 punches he threw in a mad, 10 second frenzy is something that has never left him. His phone hasn’t stopped all week with people wanting to remind him of the event and he is predicting a similar round of calls in 12 years time when the Lions next return.

“There’s no doubt about it, I have done a lot of things with my life, but that’s the one that people remember. That’s fine – I did it, I have to deal with it and I understand that,” admitted McRae, who played professional rugby union and rugby league for 14 years.

“You can’t change it. It was 12 years ago, although it seems like yesterday. It’s one of those things and it does still get brought up on various occasions.

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“We definitely wanted to go out and make a statement, but how it ended up with me wasn’t planned or anything. That’s the disappointing part about the game – we had a chance to beat them and it dissipated when I got sent off.

“I just hope it is about the guys playing in this game and not what happened 12 years ago that everyone ends up talking about. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the players.

“I have learned to live with it. It hasn’t affected my life as much as it has others, but I reckon it may well pop up in another 12 years.”

The Lions were looking to get their 10-match tour back on track after a disappointing defeat to an Australian A team that contained a number of Waratahs players. Just as now, there was only a week to go to the first Test and the Lions were fighting for places.

But McRae’s vicious attack on Lions replacement O’Gara was one of the most blatant displays of foul play ever seen in a Lions fixture and it provided the biggest post-match talking point, rather than Test selection. McRae, who had only returned to Australia earlier that year after a spell with Saracens, landed 11 punches on a defenseless O’Gara as the Irishman lay pinned to the ground 14 minutes into the second half.

The Waratahs full back rightly saw red for the assault that left O’Gara needing eight stitches to a grotesque lump around his left eye and was subsequently banned for seven matches.

Unfortunately that incident wasn’t the only negative memory from June 23, 2001, although it was by far the most high-profile. The game was further marred by a handful of yellow cards and plenty of off-the-ball niggle as neither side took a backward step in Sydney.

As for the game itself, the Lions scored five tries courtesy of four different members of their backline as they put their 28-25 reverse to Australia’s second string four days earlier behind them.

But while the overall scoreline was comfortable enough, the performance itself was far from perfect. Graham Henry’s men shipped four tries against a side missing their hefty Wallaby contingent despite the New Zealander having named the majority of his Test team in the Lions’ starting line up.

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Ronan O'Gara required significant medical attention after Duncan McRae's attack

New South Wales Waratahs 24 BRITISH & IRISH LIONS 41

HT: 5-24

Scorers: Waratahs: Try –Pinkerton, Cullimore, Harris, Edmonds;Cons – Edmonds 2; Lions: Tries – O’Driscoll, Robinson 2, Wilkinson, James; Cons – Wilkinson 4, Dawson; Pens – Wilkinson 2

SETTING THE SCENE

The Lions arrived in Sydney on the back of their first loss of the tour. Having been narrowly beaten by the Aussie A side and widely ridiculed by the Aussie press, the Lions were desperate to avoid such a fate for second game running.

That frustrating reverse in Gosford had seen the Lions receive plenty of criticism on both sides of the equator. The knives were well and truly out for the tourists, with numerous Aussies and Brits alike writing off their chances of Test success.

The Lions needed a response – and a confidence boost – prior to the start of the series and everyone knew that.

Perhaps with that in mind, Henry opted for most of his big guns for the clash with the Waratahs – the second of the three Super Rugby sides the Lions faced on a tour that preceded the formation of the Force and the Rebels.

Henry was clearly aware of the importance of the occasion, although, with the start of the Test series being just a week away, he was always likely to select a strong side regardless of the previous Tuesday’s surprise defeat.

THE TEAMS

The Lions made 11 changes to their starting XV, with Will Greenwood, Jason Robinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Scott Quinnell the only players named in the side for the second game running.

Greenwood started in the centres alongside the now legendary Lion but then inexperienced Brian O’Driscoll, while Robinson and Daffyd James formed a wing partnership that Henry would employ in all three Tests. Robinson had scored five tries on his Lions debut against a Queensland President’s XV, while James was also fast becoming one of the major success stories of the tour after making the most of Dan Luger’s fractured cheekbone and Ben Cohen’s lack of form.

Iain Balshaw was picked at full back ahead of Bath colleague Matt Perry but the roles would be reversed when the really serious stuff began against the World Champions. Balshaw’s eye-catching displays for England had left him as the heavy favourite for the No15 shirt but, with Perry playing consistently throughout the tour, he didn’t do enough in this his final chance to back up his pre-tour hype.

Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Dawson made an all-English half-back pairing as Dawson looked to press his claims for a Test spot ahead of Welsh rival Rob Howley. Dawson lost that battle but he did make plenty of headlines on tour as his widely-condemned public outburst regarding coaching methods was followed by a zero-to-hero showing in the last-gasp win over the Brumbies in the final mid-week match before departure.

Dallaglio and Quinnell were joined by Neil Back in the back row after Martyn Williams had played openside last time out. It would be the last time Dallaglio would feature for the 2001 Lions as his adventure came to a premature end thanks to a pre-tour knee problem that would eventually require reconstructive surgery. The former England captain sustained the injury playing for Wasps against Bath in May but the Lions had hoped it would hold out so Dallaglio could repeat his heroics from the 1997 series victory over South Africa.

Quinnell was one of those who featured from the off the previous Tuesday and he did enough to book the Test spot he had so desperately sought for the past four years. The Llanelli No8 had looked set for a starting berth against the Springboks in ’97 before a hernia injury ruled him out. Quinnell had since spoken of his desire to match his father Derek in playing Test-match rugby for the elite and his showing against the Waratahs ensured he did just that.

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Scott Quinnell started against the Waratahs and the Wallabies

Scott Murray and Malcolm O’Kelly were replaced at lock by tour captain Martin Johnson and fellow England cap Danny Grewcock as Henry dropped plenty of hints ahead of the opening international in Brisbane, while inspirational Irishman Keith Wood started at hooker, with Darren Morris and Phil Vickery named as the props.

Of the favoured 15 against the Waratahs, a total of nine would start the Test series, with a further two on the bench. Balshaw, Dawson, Morris, Greenwood, Dallaglio and Back were the unlucky six a week later, with the latter trio ruled out through and injury and the first two named among the replacements for that famous triumph.

As for the Waratahs, they were prevented from picking a number of their frontline Wallabies, with the likes of Nathan Grey, Matthew Burke, Chris Whitaker, Scott Staniforth and David Lyons all excluded, but they still fielded a side with plenty of experience and potential.

Skipper Phil Waugh, props Cameron Blades and Rod Moore, hooker Brendan Cannon, locks Tom Bowman and Jono West and fly-half Manny Edmonds all started for Australia A on June 19, while Patricio Noriega and Sam Payne were both on the bench for their country’s reserve side.

Both Moore and Cannon went on to feature in Wallaby matchday 22 against the Lions, while Waugh would eventually win 79 caps for his country despite battling George Smith for a back-row spot.

The Waratahs were also coached by a man with massive experience at the top level, with Bob Dwyer in the first of his three seasons in charge. Dwyer had led Australia to World Cup glory a decade earlier and had gone on to coach both Leicester and Bristol before heading home prior to the arrival of the Lions.

Dwyer was familiar with a number of Lions having worked closely with the likes of Martin Johnson and Austin Healey. Mercurial utility back Healey was named on the Lions bench for this one having publicly fallen out with the man dubbed ‘Barb Dwyer’ (Barbed Wire) for his approach to his players during the Aussie’s spell at Welford Road.

Waratahs: D McRae;F Cullimore, L Inman, S Harris, S Qua Qau, M Edmonds, S Payne; C Blades, B Cannon, R Moore, J West, T Bowman, S Pinkerton, F Finau, P Waugh (c)

British & Irish Lions: Iain Balshaw (Bath/England); Daffyd James (Bridgend/Wales),BrianO’Driscoll (Leinster/Ireland),Will Greenwood (Harlequins/England),Jason Robinson (Sale/England),Jonny Wilkinson (Newcastle/England), Matt Dawson (Northampton/England); Darren Morris (Swansea/Wales),Keith Wood (Harlequins/Ireland), Phil Vickery (Gloucester/England),Martin Johnson (Leicester/England) (c), Danny Grewcock (Saracens/Scotland),Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps/England),Neil Back (Leicester/England),Scott Quinnell (Llanelli/Wales)

Replacements: Robin McBryde (Llanelli/Wales), Tom Smith (Brive/Scotland), Martin Corry (Leicester/England), Richard Hill (Saracens/England), Austin Healey (Leicester/England), Ronan O'Gara (Munster/Ireland), Matt Perry (Bath/England)

Referee: S Young (Australia)

Attendance: 40,128

THE MATCH

The tone of the match was set just seconds after kick off when Waratahs second row Bowman clattered into Grewcock with a flying elbow. Bowman was duly yellow carded by referee Steve Young after touch judge Stuart Dickinson intervened but the punishment did little to dampen the animosity on show in Sydney.

The Lions made the most of their immediate one-man advantage with just three minutes on the clock as O’Driscoll scorched over following impressive contributions from Back and Robinson. O’Driscoll had made the initial inroads before popping up once more to hint at the individual brilliance that was to come at The Gabba a week later.

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Neil Back and Brian O'Driscoll linked up for the Lions' first score

Wilkinson added the extras to hand the Lions an ideal start but the Waratahs hit back through flanker Stu Pinkerton. Quinnell’s loose pass caused all sorts of problems, with Wilkinson and Vickery unable to rescue the situation before Pinkerton pounced.

Edmonds was off target with the conversion to ensure the Lions remained ahead and the tourists put the five-point setback behind them as they began to dominate proceedings. The Lions showed their willingness to attack from deep and to keep ball in hand whenever possible but it was Grewcock’s hard work in stealing turnover ball that set the platform for the first of Robinson’s two first-half tries.

The Saracens but soon-to-be Bath lock, who had only booked his place on the plane late on after suffering a broken jaw earlier that season, cemented his Test spot by rampaging into the opposition 22 to put the Lions well and truly on the front foot. Wilkinson and Greenwood made the most of the invitation to attack a back-tracking defensive line and the duo combined to send Robinson over from close-range after a quarter of an hour.

Wilkinson slotted the conversion and a penalty to push the Lions 17-5 ahead but it wasn’t all good news as Greenwood’s Test chances were dealt a hammer blow when he left the field injured just past the halfway mark in the first period. The Quins midfielder had been in superb form in recent weeks, pulling the strings and creating chance after chance for his grateful team-mates but this was to be his last appearance on tour. Scans later showed that Greenwood had damaged ankle ligaments – an injury that would prevent him from earning a Lions cap for the second successive trip after a life-threatening collision ended his hopes four years earlier.

Greenwood’s departure saw Henry switch Wilkinson to centre and bring on O’Gara at fly-half, and it was the Irishman who would make all the headlines after the game despite the fact that Jonny contributed a total of 19 points courtesy of a try, two penalties and four conversions.

But before O’Gara became the centre of McRae’s attentions, Robinson added his second score to hand the Lions a 24-5 half-time lead. This time, the rugby-league convert, who only made his full-time union debut for Sale in November 2000, created his own luck as he reacted quickest to a loose ball at the side of a ruck before racing clear of several Aussie defenders to register a fine try.

The second period began with a controversial second score for the hosts as wing Francis Cullimore finished off a move that featured two forward passes but failed to incur the wrath of the referee after 45 minutes. Centre Sam Harris then crossed for a quick-fire third and suddenly the Lions’ lead was down to just seven after Edmonds converted for the first time.

It was then that the game threatened to disintegrate into something of a farce as McRae launched his vicious assault on O’Gara. McRae, who would later come face-to-face with his victim when playing for Gloucester against Munster, looked at one stage as if he might get away with his violent outburst scot-free, with one Australian commentator even suggesting that the referee and his assistant had committed a grave miscarriage of justice in sending him to the stands.

With the game already at boiling point following Bowman’s early yellow and consistent on and off-the-ball flare ups, things now tipped over thanks to McRae’s moment of madness. A mass brawl followed just after his 55th-minute dismissal and four further players were sent to join him for 10 minutes.

Grewcock, Vickery, Blades and Cannon were the quartet caught out when both packs clashed in more ugly scenes as O’Gara was still being helped gingerly to the medical rooms but they weren’t the only ones caught up in the raw emotion of what had just transpired.

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Jonny Wilkinson's score effectively won the game for the Lions

The Lions somehow maintained their composure against all the odds and the game was finally made safe when Wilkinson added a second penalty and crossed for a well-worked converted try of his own.

James went on to grab the Lions’ fifth and final score after the pack won scrum ball against the head, although there was still time for the Waratahs to at least have the final say try wise as Edmonds made Dawson pay for an uncharacteristic defensive lapse.

WHAT THEY SAID

Donal Lenihan (Lions tour manager)
“Given the circumstances of the game, everybody is hugely thrilled to win this match. I think this game has pulled us even closer together as a squad.

"It (McRae’s attack) was a disgrace. If one of our players had done that, then I am quite sure I know what the headlines would have been in Australia.

“If the shoe was on the other foot, then we would be reading about it for the next 12 years. It looked terrible.”

Graham Henry (Lions coach)
“I was delighted with the character and discipline of the Lions. If they hadn't shown that character, the game could have got right out of hand, and they deserve a huge pat on the back.

“O'Gara has absolutely no idea why he was attacked so violently. Rugby needs strong discipline from both sets of players. I was proud of the way our players kept theirs.

“The game has been cleaned up hugely over the past 30 years, and it was disappointing to see some of the incidents today. These kind of things provide very bad role models for young people.”

Bob Dwyer (Waratahs coach)
“Duncan's told me he retaliated and I'd have to say that was not the first incident in the game. The fact is that the first punch of the game was thrown by the Lions.

“I don't condone what Duncan did, but I reject any suggestions there was an unhealthy approach to the game by our team.

“We've been accused of starting the situation but we're saying, 'Look at our record in the Super 12. We just don't play that way'.”

Ian Robertson (BBC Radio commentator)
“The margin of victory may look convincing but this was anything but a convincing performance. This was the nucleus of the Lions Test team but they produced a sub-standard performance against a weak New South Wales team.

“It’s very worrying that the Lions conceded four tries in such circumstances and their poor defensive organisation has to be a real concern – the Wallabies would have punished them far more severely.

“There’s a lot of work to be done before the first Test in Brisbane.”

Danny Grewcock (Lions lock)
“New South Wales are a good side who made things difficult for us, but the boys pulled together. We looked after each other and relied on each other and there is a good feeling in the team.”

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Danny Grewcock was one of those sinbinned in Sydney

The Lions in Sydney:

The Lions have played 40 games in Sydney at an average of more than 3.6 on each tour. One of the world’s most-talked about cities has featured in every single one of the Lions’ 11 tours to Australia and hosted an incredible 20 matches across the first three of those adventures.

A total of 12 of the 40 fixtures have been Tests, with the Lions triumphing on eight occasions for a 66 per cent win rate.

It’s the Wallabies who have enjoyed the first and the last laugh, though, thanks to victory in the first-ever Test in Sydney in 1899 and the most-recent encounter in 2001.

The picturesque city will feature twice on the Lions agenda in 2013, with the Waratahs waiting this Saturday before the third and final Test takes place at the ANZ Stadium on July 6.

P 40 W 30 D 2 L 8

1888: New South Wales 2 Lions 18
New South Wales 6 Lions 18
Sydney Juniors 0 Lions 11
New South Wales 2 Lions 16
Sydney Grammar School 2 Lions 2
University of Sydney 4 Lions 8

1899: New South Wales 3 Lions 4
Metropolitan 5 Lions 8
Australia 13 Lions 3
New South Wales 5 Lions 11
Metropolitan 8 Lions 5
Australia 10 Lions 11
Australia 0 Lions 13
Combined Public Schools 3 Lions 21

1904: New South Wales 0 Lions 27
New South Wales 6 Lions 29
Metropolitan 6 Lions 19
Australia 0 Lions 17
Australia 0 Lions 16
New South Wales 0 Lions 5

1908: New South Wales 0 Lions 3
New South Wales 0 Lions 8
Metropolitan 13 Lions 16
New South Wales 6 Lions 3

1930: New South Wales 10 Lions 29
Australia 6 Lions 5
New South Wales 28 Lions 3

1950: New South Wales 6 Lions 22
Australia 3 Lions 24
Metropolitan 17 Lions 26

1959: New South Wales 18 Lions 14
Australia 3 Lions 24
 
1966: New South Wales 6 Lions 6
Australia 8 Lions 11

1971: New South Wales 12 Lions 14

1989: New South Wales 21 Lions 23
Australia 30 Lions 12
Australia 18 Lions 19

2001: New South Wales 24 Lions 41
Australia 29 Lions 23

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