Gavin Henson: The Return of the Prince

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The Gavin Henson I spoke to at the start of the 2014/15 season – when this interview was conducted – was rejuvenated in mind and body. He praised the strength and conditioning staff at Bath Rugby for the “best pre-season I’ve ever had”, much of which had been spent in Portugal. “I haven’t had too many pre-seasons in my career due to injuries, summer tours and stuff with Wales back in the past,” said Henson. Next season he will be joining a very familiar set-up at Bristol Rugby, resplendent as it is with former Wales and Ospreys colleagues. For now, he is making the gradual return to the playing field after an Achilles injury.  

* * *

Although he is not bitter in saying it, Gavin Henson calls rugby a “ruthless business”. Against Brive in the Challenge Cup quarter-final last season he won Man of the Match in a performance hailed as a rolling back of the years for Henson. It was to be the last match he started in 2013/14. “I understand [the nature of professional rugby], and that’s why I wanted to hit the ground running this season and try and get my performances up from the start.”

After a self-imposed leave of absence from the game in 2009, there are hopes that Henson could experience an Indian Summer akin to the one enjoyed by his former Lions teammate, Jonny Wilkinson. It’s an optimism he himself shares. “I like to think so. I took a lot of grief for taking two years out of rugby, but at the time I was hurting mentally and physically.”

He regrets that a lot of people misunderstood the reasons for his sabbatical. “I needed something to refresh me. I’m hoping I can get that back now and play a bit longer. I do look after myself very well, and I can look up to Peter Stringer from that point of view. There are enough players out there to draw inspiration from to still play at a high level, so that’s the plan.”

The departure of his longtime coach Lyn Jones was also one of the main reasons he took time out of the game. The absence of the avuncular, enigmatic Jones might have been the final straw for him in Swansea. “It wasn’t quite the same,” Henson says of Jones’s exit – although both were reunited at London Welsh for a single season in 2012. “I leapt at the chance to work with him again. It was a pity we couldn’t stay up, but in light of that it gave me the opportunity to sign with Bath.”

“I would say I’ve got a lot of good friends from my time at London Welsh, but it looks like they got a clearout and they’ve signed 25 new players – I didn’t even know that was allowed! It’s a different team now. I had a great time at Welsh, and they backed me to play 10 there, which was nice.”

Despite shaking the earth for Wales in the 12 jersey – until the crown was passed to incumbent Jamie Roberts – the former IRB Junior World Player of the Year is adamant his best position is fly-half. “At 12 you get that physical side, which I do like, but I like to run the game and have that influence all week with the plays. It’s what I really enjoy, but so long as I’m out there playing.”

Gavin Henson, 2005.

Teammates speak of Henson as the consummate professional – jaws reportedly dropped in his first training session with Bath, so good were some of the skills he displayed – and someone who is always looking to improve his game. For instance, he says he felt “a little bit passive in defence last season, so I want to get a little more aggressive. That’s one of my goals this season, to try to get that back into my game. I know I’m capable of it.”

Henson – the man who put in some of the most famous hits in a Welsh jersey – passive in defence? Surely not. “I’d like to get back to [that level]. I’ll do the little extras to get that right. I do like the defensive side, and it’s something I want to make a big improvement on now.”

On the subject of big hits, Henson reveals that he once entertained the notion of making a move to rugby league. “I had my eye on Celtic Crusaders when they were up at Brewery Field, because I’d go down and watch them every weekend, especially when I had time out from rugby union. I was thinking about it.”

At Bath, he is encouraged by the head coach to watch clips from the 13-man game, which Henson says provides him with a new way of looking at the game. “Maybe I would suit league. It is intriguing, but I don’t know if I could cross codes at this stage of my career.” It’s too early to say whether we’ll see a 10-12 axis featuring Henson and Sam Burgess in action together for Bath, but the Welshman is excited about the prospect. “Sam is such a big guy. We’ve all seen what Sonny Bill has done, and we’re putting him in that category already, so it’s pretty cool to be training and potentially playing alongside him.”

Fortunately for Burgess, his move from league to union has been more fluid than the one experienced by some of those who came before him; Iestyn Harris, for instance. “It was difficult for Iestyn. Maybe he didn’t realise what Wales was like, especially with tens,” suggests Henson, with more than a hint of empathy. “I thought he played really well for Cardiff, but it didn’t quite happen for him on the international stage. Whether that was down to the coaching that was in place at the time, I don’t know. He should have been given more of a chance, but he was a quality player and he had all the skills.”

The Welsh Exiles

THE WELSH EXILES: A joint Bath-Bristol training session. L to R: Ian Evans, Dom Day, Dwayne Peel, Paul James, Gavin Henson and Matthew Morgan.

Despite the fake social media accounts out there under his name, he has never tweeted or Facebooked in his life. At one point in his career this might have been for the best, but the stream of support he now gets from Bath and Wales supporters alike is a belated sign of the high regard in which they have come to hold him.

How is his relationship with the fans? “I spend a lot of time with them, talking to them after the games. I always like to hear their viewpoint. I like to hear what they think about the game. I feel that support when I come on, or when I’m starting.” And when he’s playing away from home? “I enjoy the banter from the away supporters who give me a bit of stick. I’m an easy target that way, but I’ve always had that throughout my career and I kind of enjoy that. I’ve always felt it’s an entertainment business, so that’s the way I treat it.”

It strikes me that the public perception of Gavin Henson is markedly different to the one possessed by those that know him. “Exactly, and I understand those perceptions and that’s fine,” he says with a smile. “They give some gyp from the stands, and I obviously hear that because I’m not quite in the zone, but when I’m on the field I don’t really hear it.”

Henson

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Sam Burgess: From Bondi to Bath

Bath Rugby v Wasps - Aviva Premiership

Since an emotional evening at the former Olympic Stadium in Sydney back in October, when he helped end the South Sydney Rabbitohs’ 43-year title drought, Sam Burgess has carried a weight of expectation that only the rocklike shoulders of a league legend could bear.

Making the move from the 13-man game to union saw the press follow his every move. Not that he is camera-shy: this is, after all, the darling of the Australian media who won Man of the Match in a Grand Final with a broken cheek and ten days later was named Elle’s Most Stylish Man. And now he finds himself in Bath.

The media circus was soon replaced by brutal conditioning sessions, but this, you sense, is just how Sam Burgess would like it – although the intensity took him slightly by surprise.

“It took me a while to get over the jet lag, but I got into training quickly,” says the 26-year-old from West Yorkshire. “It’s high-level, tough training at Bath. I had to get my head around a lot of things here, learning five different things a day. It’s been a cracking few weeks and the club has been fantastic with me.”

Gavin Henson and Sam Burgess - Bath Rugby training session

Being in the public eye throughout much of his career – whether it be with the Bradford Bulls, South Sydney Rabbitohs or his starring role for England in the 2013 Rugby League World Cup – has been sufficient preparation for Burgess on his arrival at Bath.

As he recalls it: “I’d just come from Grand Final week over there, and the media was unbelievable. The game over there is so big, so I’ve been exposed to it before and I kind of enjoy it.”

Burgess has received numerous messages from people in the Southern Hemisphere saying they want to visit Bath, having witnessed its picturesque scenery in media reports on the day he arrived at the famous Recreation Ground to greet the press. “They saw some great shots, which is wonderful,” he says. “It was a really good day. I don’t think I was too fazed by it, since it’s part of the job. It was also a good introduction to the Rec.”

Burgess is something of a coffee connoisseur – he likes a strong, flat white (an Aussie favourite) – and has traditionally made time before matches to appear on ‘the coffee scene’ with teammates. “I’ve been trying to find as many good spots as I can. Café culture is huge in Sydney. I used to go to Leeds and struggle to find decent coffee, so I’m glad there are good places here in Bath.”

Unsurprisingly for a man who stands at 6’5” and weighs in at just over 18 stone, Burgess is something of a foodie. “The food is unbelievable here at Farleigh,” he says of the Bath Rugby headquarters, located fifteen minutes outside of the city, and where players enjoy breakfast and dinner cooked by chefs.

* * *

So immersed was Burgess in his Australian life that this was the first Christmas he has spent in the UK since 2008 – and he ensured that it was one will be full of tradition: “It was nice to be back in the cold, having Christmas feel like Christmas. In Australia, we’d get family around, have a barbecue, a bit of seafood and have a swim at the beach. It’s relaxed: it’s 35 degrees, you sit ouside in shorts.”

South Sydney Recovery Session

The Bath Rugby team received the honour of switching on the Bath Christmas lights in front a packed-out Milsom Street in late November, which Burgess calls a “privilege”.

Burgess is famously one of four professional rugby league-playing brothers, and he was clearly delighted to welcome Thomas, George and Luke to Bath over the holiday. When his siblings had departed for sunnier climes, he and his girlfriend, writer Phoebe Hooke, spent Christmas with her family in one of Bath’s famous houses: Jane Austen’s one-time residence in Sydney Place.

“It’s a big townhouse, a really beautiful spot,” he says. “What with her being a writer, she was especially excited about it. I suppose it’s the equivalent of somebody telling me I was going to be staying in David Beckham’s house for Christmas.”

Russell Crowe and Sam Burgess

Added to the Burgess star quality is the well-known fact that he is close friends with Hollywood power player Russell Crowe. It is perhaps ironic that Crowe, who owns the South Sydney Rabbitohs, filmed his final scene in the 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables but a stone’s throw from the Rec.

By now, he is well-versed in the story about the life-sized dummy of Crowe’s Inspector Javert (SPOILER ALERT: his character jumps into the river from a great height) accidentally washing away down the Avon. Burgess takes up the tale: “Two weeks later they found the prop down the river and people thought it was a human body. I told Russell that story and we had a laugh about it. He loves Bath, so he’s going to try and make his way over at some stage.”

* * *

He is loath to profess what sort of player he will become at Bath Rugby, but his excitement about what the future holds for him at the historic club is heartfelt. Those who already follow the 15-man game have wasted no time in taking to the Rec this season to watch Burgess make his first forays into rugby union. Chances are that those not yet converted to the sport will soon follow suit.

Whilst Burgess represents the apex of code-crossers, it is easy to forget that, back in the Noughties, a former teammate of his at Rabbitohs was also causing tremors in the rugby world. “I’m real close mates with Lote Tuqiri,” he says, referring to the former Australian dual-international (pictured below, right) as “a great man”. “We used to talk about my move to union quite often, and obviously [fellow former Rabbitoh] Ben Te’o’s at Leinster now too. We were very focused on winning the Grand Final, but in our downtime we’d talk about it.”

2014 NRL Grand Final

From the outset, he has purposefully not stated what sort of player he will become in rugby union. “I’m not going to come and say I’m going to be this guy. I’ve been training in the back line so far, and I’ve enjoyed it. I would like to get in a few more tackles and get my hands on the ball as much as I can, and that might be in the back row. But we’ll see how it goes. Hopefully I can add something to the team.”

With his first Premiership try and Man of the Match in Bath’s 39-26 defeat of Wasps now under his belt, Burgess could yet muscle his way into a winning role with his club this season. While he might not be elaborate on his prospects of playing in this year’s Rugby World Cup, you can be sure that Stuart Lancaster has been paying close attention to the new kid at Bath.

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Feature: Paul James

Paul James

There is one word that Paul James’s teammates regularly use to describe the loosehead from Neath: hard. It’s a title that props have always worn with honour, because if there’s one place on the field that demands mental and physical fortitude, it’s in the front row.

That hardness was refined from the moment he left school at 16 and started a vehicle bodybuilding apprenticeship, which meant he would only be able to play youth rugby rather than schoolboy. “I played for Wales Youth, which was basically a harder team,” he says. “Schoolboys were seen as soft; youth boys were harder. A lot harder.”

A man of James’s stature and demeanour was born to graft, and his apprenticeship saw him working on everything from giant arctic lorries to even bigger breakdown trucks. He insists it’s a trade he could still carry out: “You learn how to weld, spray, basic mechanics and electrics, bodywork, everything. They give you the job and you do it from start to finish.”

For James, school was a means to play a good standard of rugby, and Dwr-y-Felin comprehensive in the working-class town of Neath was fit for purpose. Two years above him was future mezzo-soprano superstar Katherine Jenkins, who now regularly sings the Welsh national anthem at the Millennium Stadium. “It’s good to see a Dwr-y-Felin girl doing so well,” says James. “I can’t say I’ve got many of her albums, but she’s an OBE now, so she’s doing alright!”

Wales v England - RBS Six Nations

It might seem a world away from the grand Roman surroundings of Bath, but James isn’t the only former Dwr-y-Felin pupil to have propped up the Blue, Black and White scrum: 19-times capped tighthead Christian Loader played for the Club between 2004 and 2006, meaning there is an extension to that corner of Neath in the heart of Somerset.

At just 17 years old, James signed a professional contract with Neath RFC– with the assurance that he could finish his apprenticeship. The head coach there, Lyn Jones, would play a pivotal figure in his career. As a former amateur player who had juggled the work-rugby lifestyle, Jones appreciated the fact that this young local prop was intent on mastering his trade.

“For about three and a half years it was busy days for me,” explains the 31-year-old. “I’d clock in for work at seven a.m., go training at 10, come back to work at midday, stay until five p.m. and then go training in the nights. I knew rugby would happen for me, but I was a year into the apprenticeship and I wanted to finish it.”

* * *

Professional but not professional. That’s how James remembers his days at Neath, one of Welsh rugby’s most iconic clubs. It’s not hard to read between the lines when he says: “There were a lot of old heads there back in the day, like Gareth Llewellyn and Andrew Millward. You had to have a little bit about you just to be able to hold your own. It was great.”

That the 17-year-old James was not only holding his own in the notoriously unforgiving Neath environment, but finding it “great”, left an indelible imprint on coach Jones’s mind. When regional rugby was born in Wales in 2003, Jones made sure the young prop was part of the Neath-Swansea Ospreys.

PJ3

“It was an exciting time signing for the Ospreys. In 2003 it was me, Adam Jones and lots of the other Wales U21s boys coming through. Duncan Jones, who was the other loosehead at Neath, was first choice at Ospreys for years. He was a good guy: always there to help and never arrogant or trying to do me over, even though we were both competing for the same shirt.”

There are more romantic ways of gaining your first international cap than facing Romania at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, as James did in 2003, so it’s a good thing he isn’t one for putting a gloss on matters. There was to be a six-year gap between his first cap and his second against New Zealand in 2009.

It was Duncan Jones, one half of the “Hair Bear props”, whose injury led to James being called up to the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia. He was an unused replacement for the competition, but nonetheless recalls it being “an unbelievable three weeks of enjoying myself”. That enjoyment was followed by two seasons marred by neck injuries and successive operations that left him in the international wilderness before his Welsh career had really begun.

“I thought I’d have to retire and go back to coach-building,” he says of the career-threatening injuries to his neck. “But thankfully that wasn’t the end of my playing days. I missed two seasons and I was out of the Welsh set-up by the time I came back – what with Duncan playing so well – but I’ve been more fortunate in recent seasons.”

* * *

Last season’s Six Nations winners medal would attest to James’s rebirth at international level, coming on the back of some strong performances for Bath, and he is only four tests matches away from equalling the 57 appearances made by Duncan Jones. He always thought he would be a career Osprey, but having spent almost a decade with the Swansea-based region it would appear he was quite happy to leave.

“I’d been there for nearly 10 years, and it was the same every day,” says James. “I was playing alright, but I felt I was going stale. There had been new coaches coming in and out, and it was best for me to move on. Steve Tandy wanted to keep me, but I felt it was best to leave.”

It just so happened that James was on a weekend trip to London in 2012 when his agent rang to say that Bath were interested. “I jumped in the car with my kids and drove here. I listened to the ambitions of the club and was really impressed. My kids were a key factor in the thought process because I’d entertained the notion of moving to France, but the combination of being so close to Wales and Bath being so ambitious sealed the deal.”

Paul James - Bath Rugby v Northampton Saints

His career has intertwined with current teammate Gavin Henson’s – from youth level to Ospreys and now at Bath. James tells the story of how he toiled away for Swansea’s youth team – back then the best youth set-up in Wales – and watched with bemusement as Henson came onto the scene and went straight into the first team.

“You could tell straight away that Gavin was a special talent,” he says. “It’s good to see him showing that here in Bath colours. We’ve got our own little Wales going on here at Bath with big Dom Day and Martin Roberts here as well.”

Many believe James should have started ahead of Gethin Jenkins at Twickenham in this season’s crunch Six Nations match against England. James’s powers at the scrum earlier on could have made a telling impact, but he believes it was other areas of the game that ensured Wales wouldn’t win a record three Championships on the bounce.

“We fronted up a bit more in the England game than we did against Ireland. We got our pants pulled down in Dublin, which was disappointing. At Twickenham, when you have three v ones, and two v ones which are clear try-scoring opportunities you’ve got to take them. So if we’d scored those two tries, even though we were playing badly, we could still have been in the game. We let ourselves down, no doubt about it.”

James shrugs off the question of his disappointment on missing out on last year’s Lions tour as “no dramas – it’s just a part of rugby”. Though he himself hasn’t dwelt on the perceived setback, there were suggestions from those close to the coaching set-up that it wasn’t Warren Gatland who had cut him, but forwards coach Graham Rowntree.

* * *

In international terms, for James it’s all about getting back on track for the upcoming World Cup in England next year, with two of Wales’s pool matches being played at the Millennium Stadium. “You want to be going into that World Cup with more wins under your belt than losses, so that confidence is there. I’m sure the boys will be fine, but there can be frustrating times when everybody supporting Wales expects you to win. When you do lose some people think it’s the end of the world.”

“After we lost to Ireland this year, if you were walking in the street back in Wales you’d think somebody had died. You need perspective.”

Paul James 1

At Bath, there is a big push for the final weeks of the season, both in the Aviva Premiership and with the Amlin Challenge Cup Final being played at Cardiff Arms Park on 23rd May. After the explosive scenes at the end of the Gloucester match a few weeks ago, there is no doubting his team’s commitment to the cause.

“There’s a lot of ambition here and the squad is in tune, with a good blend of experience and youngsters,” he believes. “The balance is right. While I’m here I want to achieve some silverware because of all the hard work and sacrifice we put in as a club. You saw how we stuck together and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at Kingsholm. We’re ready for anything.”

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Rokoduguni – A Soldier’s Tale

Rok Star

Semesa Rokoduguni is a rare breed of athlete: the 26-year-old has served Queen and Country on the battlefield as well as the rugby field. 

Hailing from Fiji, some of whose most popular exports are dazzling rugby players and soldiers, it was only natural that Rokoduguni would opt for one of those pursuits as a career. That he has been able to combine being a tank driver in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards with being one of the most lethal wingers in the Aviva Premiership goes some way to explaining why he is forever playing with a smile on his face.

A combination of Fiji’s natural sporting heritage – “three-quarters of my time at school was spent on sports”, he reflects – and having parents steeped in athletics and rugby meant Rokoduguni was always going to be a dab hand with the oval ball.

“I have a sister who plays rugby for Fiji,” he adds, elaborating on the Rokoduguni brand. “And my brother plays football in New Zealand.”

A long line of Rokodugunis were military men, and it is the continuation of that legacy that ruled out for him an earlier introduction to professional rugby. It was a proposed move that might have ended with him representing France instead of England.

A certain former French national coach had been scouting the island, recruiting players for a wealthy Pro D2 club, and happened upon Rokoduguni playing in his hometown of Nausori (some eleven miles from Fiji’s capital, Suva).

Rokoduguni picks up the conversation: “He told me I had potential in rugby, then said ‘give me three months, I’ll train you in whatever you need to take you to the next step’.“

The Frenchman was true to his word, and when that time came he brought Rokoduguni a contract for a move to France. But in the meantime, another offer had arrived from the British Army requesting the services of the speedster. It was quite the tyranny of choice for the young man.

“I had in one hand a contract for a club in France, and in the other an invitation to join the Army,” he says of the dilemma. “It was tough. I asked my parents’ advice and they told me it wasn’t their decision to make. If I made a good choice, it would be a bonus, and if it was a bad one, I would learn from it.”

In the event, his choice proved to be a good one: he joined the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, where he was deployed as a tank driver, as well as becoming proficient in gunning and loading. Then came the call most soldiers of Rokoduguni’s generation await: Afghanistan.

Roko 2

“I was attached to the 4 Scots infantry regiment, doing foot patrols for six months in Helmand Province,” says Rokoduguni, whose battalion was part of the 7th Armoured Brigade (also known as the Desert Rats).

He frequently compares both his professions: “Being a soldier is pretty much like rugby: you train and train, and if all you do is train you get bored. You just want to get into the field and put everything you’ve worked on into practice.”

“It is scary when you have rounds fired at you, and there’s no room for mistakes. You have men around you relying on you, and you’re relying on them. A mistake can cost someone’s life.”

It was playing with the Army XV in Portugal that Rokoduguni came to the attention of Mike Ford. A three-week spell with Newcastle Falcons instilled in him some serious reservations about the cold weather up north, but he was soon impressing for Bath Rugby in a trial stint with the club.

Roko 1

He is still attached to the Dragoon Guards, who posted him to Warminster to enable him to continue with his rugby at Bath, and Rokoduguni praises the regiment for their flexibility and encouragement of his rugby. “The army teaches you many things,” he says. “The value of punctuality and discipline are especially important, and those things are vital in rugby.”

If he has been under the threat of fire from the enemy in Afghanistan, surely walking out in front of a packed rugby ground is a walk in the park for him? “No, there are still nerves walking out onto the rugby field, especially in the big games. There is massive pressure, you don’t want to do anything stupid that will cost the team.”

London Wasps v Bath Rugby - Aviva Premiership

Rokoduguni has electrified viewers of the Premiership, not to mention head coach Ford, who often tells his winger that he will gladly pay for a ticket just to watch the Fijian in full flight.  It seems that England coach Stuart Lancaster feels the same way, because Rokoduguni was this year selected to play for the England Saxons – making his debut against none other than Scotland A.

“My family were over the moon,” he says, smiling at the thought, “but half of the boys in my regiment were slightly unhappy, to say the least. Even my regimental boss said, ‘Sorry, Roko, I can’t cheer for you – it’s the Red Rose on your chest’. But they came up to watch me play in the game against Scotland, so I think they’ve forgiven me!”

As the first Fijian to wear the England shirt, Rokoduguni’s selection made headlines on the island. Historically, it has only been the All Blacks and the Wallabies who have snapped up Fijians, but England now have their own special talent in Rokoduguni.

Despite now being an English rugby player, he is already looking to give back to his native Fiji. With the help of his cousin and brother, Rokoduguni has set up a Sevens team for wayward youths.

“They’ve already won four tournaments in Fji,” he says proudly.

If he continues to perform for Bath, Rokoduguni will have some trophies of his own to boast about.

London Wasps v Bath Rugby - Aviva Premiership

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The Louw Down

South Africa's Springbok Francois Louw a

“In South Africa, everyone plays rugby at all levels, no matter how good or bad you are,” says Francois Louw.

That statement paints a picture of what it took for Louw to reach rugby’s summit: pulling on the sacred Springbok jersey. Though he wouldn’t dream of admitting it, his determination to succeed in his sport has enabled him to overcome numerous odds.

First there was Stellenbosch University, the establishment on the Western Cape of South Africa that boasts the largest rugby club in the world. He had already excelled in the sport at Bishops, the renowned independent all-boys school in Cape Town, but entering Stellenbosch would prove another test entirely for the flanker.

“It took commitment, because there is such a supply of talented rugby players, the competition’s always high,” says the 28-year-old regarded as one of the finest opensides in world rugby. “It forces you to put your hand up and rise to the top. You need the drive to stand out, but also the need to compete. You need to reach your best because there are guys around you when you’re playing who are gunning for your spot who are as good as you are.”

The second test came some years later, shortly after Louw had accepted an offer to join Bath Rugby in 2011, arriving in the West Country from Super Rugby’s Stormers. It was widely believed that moving to the UK would effectively end his international ambitions, given that so few Springboks had been recalled from Europe to the national side.

South Africa v New Zealand: The Rugby Championship

 

As it happened, Louw was soon rejoining the South African cause for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. In so doing, he joined an elite band of players (including Ulster’s Ruan Pienaar) who are regularly selected for their national side despite not plying their trade in their homeland. He has now won 21 of his 28 caps on the back of his starring performances in the Blue, Black and White of Bath.

Louw took a path that differs to most professional players in his homeland: he didn’t play any provincial rugby at school, or even after it. “I didn’t play in the South African junior side either – I just went straight to university and from there climbed up. It’s not the typical walk of the South African rugby player, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything moulded me into the player and person I am today.”

Despite his weariness of the tired contrasts between Southern Hemisphere and Northern Hemisphere rugby, he claims to have benefited from playing in both. “Here in Europe the game is more direct and physical, as opposed to expansive and fast,” he reflects. “Whether that’s weather dependent or the mindset, I’m not really sure. I do know that I’ve definitely learnt so much at Bath in my last three seasons. It’s opened my eyes to a different side of rugby and it’s helped me overall as a player and increased my set of skills.”

Francois Louw - Leicester Tigers v Bath Rugby

How, then, does he explain the continued dominance of the Big Three: South Africa, New Zealand and Australia? “I don’t know why that happens. All those games are high intensity, physical games. You make one mistake and the other team will capitalise on that and score points. It’s difficult to say why we win most our games over here in Europe, but hopefully we can carry on doing that.”

That said, he paints a picture of South African rugby forever passing on a torch to the incumbent team, which gives some indication as to why they are still the most feared side in the world game. “Ours is a very strong rugby nation. We’ve done very well since the start of the game, and we’re continuously being tested and striving to be the best in the world.”

The South African male has a tendency to be portrayed as a lantern-jawed, no-nonsense macho man. Springbok legend Bakkies Botha captured that stereotype  to much social media applause last September when, in the aftermath of Australia’s 26-point loss to South Africa, he posted a tweet (below) comparing his carnivorous Toulon teammate Danie Rossouw with several of the Wallabies sunning themselves like male models.

Bakkies Botha tweet

Louw smiles wryly at the memory: “That sums it up quite nicely. That’s not really our image at all. South Africa is a very, very honest nation – you are what you are, be humble and proud of who you are. Christianity is a strong and central part of our lives and the teams over there. Morally, that’s just the way our parents bring us up, and I’m very fortunate my parents brought me up that way, to make the correct decisions in life and to carry those morals into all aspects of life, whether that’s sport or just socially. You must have your ground that you stand on and strongly believe in it – no compromise.”

As well as that 12-38 humbling of the Wallabies, Louw shone in the final match of last season’s Rugby Championship, a 27-38 loss to the All Blacks that some consider one of the greatest tests ever played. He might flinch, however, at any signs of congratulations on his outstanding performance.

“It was a successful season, but the only place that’s really good for us is first place,” says Louw, encapsulating the winning mindset of a Springbok. “The South African nation and its fans are very unforgiving in that sense. Sometimes a win’s not really good enough, it’s how you win and by how much.”

Considering the logistics of his international duties and being based in Bath, there can’t be many rugby players with as many air miles as Louw. (Incidentally, his Bath teammate, winger Horacio Agulla, is one who shares that jetset lifestyle now that Argentina are competing in the Rugby Championship.)

South Africa v Italy - Castle Incoming Tour

Is it a small sacrifice to make, all those hours of waiting around in airports? “It is tough, but you step back and look from the outside at what you’re doing: flying all over the world representing your country every week. You’re in Brisbane, you’re in Dunedin, you’re in Auckland, you’re in Cape Town, you’re in Mendoza, you’re in Johannesburg, Buenos Aires, then you’re back to Bath. It’s tough, but it’s amazing.”

It must be strange for Louw to be out of the South African public’s eye for large chunks of the season, but to then reappear in the Springbok colours. “It’s new territory for me, but it’s awesome to get back home,” he admits. “It used to be that places like Loftus Versfeld and Newlands were away stadiums for me, but now every time it’s a home game in South Africa. Every person in that crowd is behind you, it’s overwhelming. It motivates you; you don’t want to disappoint them, you want to achieve, you want to succeed.”

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The Islander Boys

James Hook

Ask and you shall receive. Wales 40 – 6 Argentina. Mike Phillips, who set many a young lady’s heart aflutter when they saw the word ‘Unattached’ in his player profile, showed that trickery is a good substitute for pace -although he showed some of that too- in scoring Wales’s opening try: a 70-metre effort that set Wales on their way to a further three touchdowns; each one of them a pearl.

Leigh Halfpenny is as Leigh Halfpenny does, but we were also treated to the rare sight of the fullback maestro in full flight, ball in hand. For those who thought he was a phenomenon with just the boot and in the air were given pause for thought. More encouraging still was the assured scrummaging of tighthead Rhodri Jones, whose admirable shift at number three suggests Adam Jones may be given some respite between now and 2015.

As for Argentina, their brightest spark, Santiago Cordero, looks set to make waves in international rugby. How long until the 20-year-old wing is whisked away from the Buenos Aires second division (you read that right) to a French club?

While Wales’s loss to South Africa is far from forgotten, the confident rout of the Pumas after the ignominy of zero Autumn wins in four years bears all the hallmarks of a new chapter for Wales.

* * *

Beck (L) - Williams (R)

GETTING RE-JIGGY WITH IT

With a rejigged team showing eleven changes to the side that took on Argentina, a stilted Welsh performance could be the order of the day against Tonga, but the presence of 19-year-old wing Hallam Amos and James Hook at ten has stimulated much of the conversation surrounding the match. Amos because only dedicated Pro12 followers have heard of him, and Hook because he’s arguably Wales’s most overlooked talent.

If 2006 was an especially bad time to be a frontline Welsh centre (when Wales headed to Argentina with only three fit midfielders in Matthew Watkins, Aled Brew and Jamie Robinson), this year comes close that annus horribilis for the nation. Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams have been the preferred variable in the centres for some time, and with newly-capped Cory Allen now also out with a dislocated shoulder, it might be worth checking if the middle of Wales’s training pitch isn’t built over a Hellmouth.

Enter Ashley Beck and Owen Williams. Beck has had the misfortune of knocking on the Wales door in the same era as Dr Roberts (who hasn’t so much knocked as broken the door down), and has only had fleeting opportunities to reproduce the class he shows on a permanent basis with Ospreys. Like Cory Allen, Williams has shown pure athleticism in his Wales 7s exploits and, if anything, has staked an even more credible claim than his Blues teammate for a shot at the sacred jersey with triple the amount of appearances for their region.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that Warren Gatland has been reading The Rugby City. The selection of Jordan Williams on the pine is most welcome. I’d rather think that, ten years from now, we’ll all be looking at this Tonga match as the first step in the making of a Welsh superstar, rather than a ‘remember that Jordan Williams who came off the bench for Wales once?’ piece of rugby trivia.

Tonga

TONGA TRUCK

It was with a certain wariness (not weariness – nobody gets tired of watching the French) that I caught up with the Tonga v France match on the weekend. Not so much because of the inevitable punch-ups -although the Welsh boys will need cat-like reflexes to avoid any meaty fists coming their way- but more the passages of play the Tongans showed that served to remind us of their giant-toppling abilities.

Unforgettably, Tonga punished a lacklustre France at the 2011 World Cup in a 19-14 win that ranks as one of the greatest upsets in RWC history. Whilst France avenged that shock Wellington win on Saturday with a 38-18 victory, the Sea Eagles were hardly the pushovers the French would have expected (especially after the Islanders had lost to Romania the previous week). In an experimental Wales side they might smell the blood of opportunity.

Sadly, Friday’s audience will be deprived of seeing Tonga’s illustrious prop, Sona ‘Arizona’ Taumalolo, in action: he and Les Bleus lock Yoann Maestri were red-carded for punching. Anybody who has played rugby in their life will have come across a front row player who fancies himself as a try-scorer. Loosehead Taumalolo, a teammate of James Hook at Perpignan, was joint-second on tries scored with Julian Savea in the 2012 Super Rugby charts, so can justifiably lay claim to that title. He also has some serious gas for a prop, as evidenced in this run against the Crusaders last season.

Sona Taumalolo

* * *

The question is whether there are realistically any blank spaces left on Warren Gatland’s teamsheet for the Australia match on the 30th of November? If those starting their first Autumn International for Wales tonight truly believe so, we could be in for a good show.

Hook is the only non-UK-based player in the starting line-up, and one of only four in the entire matchday squad who plays his club rugby outside of Wales. There is a strong spine of the squad which looks set to remain in Wales for many seasons to come, which is good news for the national team.

If they live up to their promise, the likes of Amos and Williams (Owen and Jordan) could be the anchors which prevent further Welsh stars from heading abroad. Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate and Jonathan Davies have committed their futures to French clubs in the knowledge that there is little likelihood of their being usurped in the national set-up. Perhaps the one thing that might have kept them at home was the prospect of losing their Welsh spot.

In the build-up to RWC 2015, Gatland could do with suffering the tyranny of choice, rather than just sending out a ragtag side to face rugby’s minnows in order to rest his first team.

Jordan Williams

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¡La Venganza!

Wales Rugby Training Session

How about those Springboks, eh? It must have been hard to tell what was more bruised in the Welsh changing room after last Saturday’s dust-up: the players’ bodies or their pride.

Let’s put aside for a minute the fact that the Millennium Stadium turf was more reminiscent of a Tijuana prison exercise yard: this wasn’t a good day for Welsh rugby. South Africa were emphatically more dangerous, and while Wales weren’t complete damp squibs -here’s looking at you, Richard ‘Wrecking Ball’ Hibbard- the sight of their second rows rebounding backwards in the collision will be an abiding image of the match. It was just that same old feeling of anti-climax that falls around this time of year (not unlike New Year’s Eve).

It might have been preferable for the Welsh Lions to have a celebratory homecoming match they were more likely to win, but the brutal reality of top-flight international rugby is that you shouldn’t expect easy games if you have any aspirations to being the best.

During last year’s Autumn series, Wales lost to an Argentina side that returned home under a dark cloud, snapped out of a fleeting Cardiff high following defeat to France and Ireland. They need to put to bed that humbling 26-12 loss this afternoon, because there is a lot riding on them doing so.

Talk about striking while the iron is hot. Argentina didn’t win a single match in the Rugby Championship -although that’s not to discredit them: most of the Home Nations would struggle- following which coach Santiago Phelan resigned amid rumours of a player mutiny also involving retired Pumas legend Agustín Pichot .

Argentina Captain's Run

Argentina were once viewed with a certain romance as the South American gauchos, drawn together from across the world a few times a year to take on the top tier nations. Hence when they pulled off shock victories such as those against France in the 2007 World Cup (twice), or England at Twickenham in 2006, they were hailed as revolutionaries. Times change.

Now that the Pumas are embedded in the world’s premier annual international rugby competition, the Rugby Championship, that cape has slowly fallen from their shoulders. Argentina are becoming the arrivistes of world rugby: where once they fell heroically, now they simply lose.

Argentina aren’t without exemplary individuals, but the loss to injury of their truly world-class captain,  Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, should take the bite out of this particular Puma. Juan Martín Hernández is also out, but Argentina stopped relying on The Magician a long time ago due to injury setbacks.

Welsh tighthead Rhodri Jones, of Aberystwyth, makes only his third start for Wales today. One of the men he packs down against is Leicester Tiger Marcos Ayerza, who represents a stern challenge for the 22-year-old Scarlet. If Jones is a Felinfoel Stout, then Ayerza is a mature Argentine Malbec. Come scrum time, Gatland will hope referee John Lacey is an ale man.

Wales Rugby Training Session

Some props get a hefty number of international caps simply due to the dearth of talent in their position. The same could not be said for Gethin Jenkins, who wins his 100th cap today. Jenkins has been at the heart of Welsh rugby’s resurgence and has given us some of our favourite memories of the men in red in recent times. He could fittingly end his international career at the next World Cup, although his fitness levels are said to be so consistently excellent that the only thing stopping him from playing beyond 2015 would be injuries.

Wales needed something to pique their interests in the week after that Boks blitz, and it duly came in the form of Cory Allen. Making his debut today, young Cory (a popular name in South Wales, it would appear, maybe due to a demographic’s fondness for Haim or Feldman) started turning heads with some sterling performances for Wales 7s last season, notably scoring a scorcher against Fiji in the final in Hong Kong. With inside centre Scott Williams also known to work magic on the pitch, Wales certainly have a dynamic midfield.

2013 Hong Kong Sevens - Day 3

On the subject of young Welsh talent, perhaps it has been too soon for Scarlets tyro Jordan Williams to be selected for international duty, but going by some of his performances of late, not to mention his outstanding work at the Junior World Championship this year (where Wales made it all the way to the final), it can only be a matter of time before the 20-year-old Llanelli boy brings that sparkle to the big stage.

* * *

“Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves”

A defeat between now and the month’s end would constitute an unsuccessful Autumn for Wales. Far from being quick to forget Welsh heroics in the Six Nations and Lions tour this year, it is exactly these successes that would make a loss in any one of the remaining fixtures in November a distinctly bitter pill to swallow.

To be dramatic, it’s fair to say that the integrity of Welsh rugby is on the line during these next three weeks. ¡Viva Gales!

* * *

England v New Zealand

Good luck, England. The All Blacks look like they’re seriously up for this one…

New Zealand Captain's Run

New Zealand All Blacks Arrive In Tokyo

New Zealand All Blacks Gym Session

New Zealand All Blacks Gym Session

Dan Carter Portrait Session

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Green Giants

head-image-3

South Africa. It’s given the world many things: Nando’s, bizarre rap group Die Antwoord, and some of the world’s finest mercenaries. Futuristic rap-ravers aside, these things probably aren’t too distantly related to the republic’s most popular global export*: carnivorous, hard-nosed rugby players.

This isn’t to say that Welsh rugby isn’t partial to a bit of Nando’s -if those walls at the Nantgarw branch could talk, it would have some stories to tell- but so far it’s the combative South Africans who have flexed their muscles and cowed the Welsh team in all bar one of their 26 encounters. (The Welsh have a win percentage of under 10% against the Springboks, which is the sort of stat you’d expect if you made Rodney Trotter fight Tony Soprano 26 times.)

The Springboks, ever the gentlemen off the field, have come to Cardiff offering rote soundbites about Wales being a ‘real threat’ and ‘essentially the Lions test team’. Historically, and with increasing weariness for the Welsh public, such platitudes have been followed by bruising defeat to this Great Rugby Nation.

South Africa v New Zealand: The Rugby Championship

I was recently at the Lyceum Theatre to hear the journalist Malcolm Gladwell speak on the subject of underdogs for his David and Goliath tour. According to Gladwell, who is nowadays something of a cultural icon, we as a society misunderstand the true meaning of advantage and disadvantage. In his latest book, he asserts that “the same qualities that appear to give [successful people, or in this case, teams] strength are often the sources of great weakness”.

South Africa’s strength since time immemorial has been their set phases – their scrum, in particular, is one that is never taken lightly. But Wales are at least their equals in the front row, with the jury still out on debutant tighthead Frans Malherbe. Wales’s second row has shown improvements at the lineout, and they certainly edge the pace stakes from six to eight (albeit against a powerhouse Boks back row spearheaded by Francois Louw).

South Africa have the weight of a winning culture behind them; almost conditioned to lose to nobody bar New Zealand. Wales are reinforced psychologically by their starring role in the Lions series victory, but haven’t beaten a Southern Hemisphere nation in five long years. Heyneke Meyer’s men are currently the only side in world rugby who could reach –on tiptoes– the stratosphere occupied by the All Blacks, and yet even they have been known to slip up to the home nations on their annual invasion of Europe.

Fourie du Preez

Once a Springbok, always a Springbok. Some sections of the South African media have expressed concern that Meyer’s squad selection for the Wales match is a little on the conservative side. Meyer has recalled the likes of Japan-based players Fourie du Preez (formerly retired from international rugby), Jaque Fourie (last seen in the Springbok jersey at the World Cup two years ago) and Biarritz’s JP Pietersen.

It might be unwise to expect complete parity in the forwards, but if Wales can force the game out wide they will be playing to their strengths: namely George North. If anybody is going to make a dent in the Springboks’ vastly more experienced backline, it is he.

Now a bona fide rugby star, the winger blew the field wide open with a brace against the Springboks on his Wales debut as an 18-year-old. He continues to justify the hype that reached fever pitch when he scored one of the greatest ever tries against Australia in the first Lions test in June. He is topping the English Premiership for metres gained on a regular basis and thriving in a muscular Northampton Saints team.

His former Scarlets teammate Jonathan Davies, one of the outstanding Lions, is another Welshman in glistening form, and together they are vital to any hopes of Welsh success on Saturday. A confident return from Rhys Priestland, also on the back of some good turns for the Scarlets, is a must against the metronomic abilities of Morne Steyn.

Australia v British & Irish Lions: Game 3

With New Zealand forfeiting their traditional fixture in Cardiff in 2013, South Africa represent the biggest challenge for Wales this Autumn. In light of how predictable the result of this encounter tends to be, a loss wouldn’t be a heinous outcome – unless Wales fail to see off the challenges of their three remaining opponents, that is. Argentina, Tonga and Australia are must-wins for them (more so following last year’s November Nightmare, when they lost every test). Three from four might privately be what Warren Gatland is realistically expecting.

We might do well to recall Wales’s opening game of the 2011 World Cup against the Springboks – not an irrelevance, given both matchday squads are largely unchanged since then. It’s tempting to look back at such matches and wonder what could have been. How Wales very nearly won against the 2007 World Cup winners that evening in Wellington, but for a missed kick.

Nearly won? The South Africans have a word for that: losing.

* * *

Rocky Bleier

EVERYBODY LOVES A COMEBACK

Two of the most revered locks in the game, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, are making comebacks of sorts. The Springboks duo who complemented each other so well in over 60 test matches  –the former a cerebral tactician, the latter a physical enforcer prone to an unusual style of headbutt– look set to provide us with more memories to go with the World Cup, Super Rugby and Currie Cup titles they lifted together over a glittering career.

Botha has been recalled into the Springboks squad from Toulon, while Matfield is reported to have ditched the coaching whistle he took up at the Bulls after the 2011 World Cup in favour of the gumshield (also with an eye on a return to the Boks fold).

Victor Matfield

Retired players tend to lace up their boots again because they know there’s the promise of one last shot at glory. In the case of Botha and Matfield, with the Springboks (ranked second in the world) and the Bulls (2013 Super Rugby runners-up) respectively, there is every likelihood they will get another hit of that sweetest of opiates: victory.

Springboks Gym Session In Cardiff

Some players, however, throw the pads back on because their old team is struggling. Rocky Bleier is just such a man; the sort of person Kevin Costner would have made a feelgood film about 20 years ago.

A legend of American football’s Pittsburgh Steelers, Bleier played 11 seasons as a running back in the Sixties and Seventies, during which he won the Super Bowl four times. So far, so All-American Hero, you may think, but Bleier’s story is not so straightforward.

His early career was punctuated by an eventful tour to Vietnam when, in 1969, and one year into his NFL career, he was drafted into the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. He went from living the high life to finding himself in a war zone, fighting the largely unseen Viet Cong. During a routine patrol, Bleier was ambushed and seriously wounded: not only did he suffer a bullet wound in one leg, but a grenade detonated only metres from him, embedding numerous pieces of shrapnel in the other leg.

The Hollywood moment came while Bleier was recuperating from his extensive war wounds, which doctors had assured him were career-ending. (It was feared at one point that he wouldn’t be able to walk again, let alone run.) A postcard reached the stricken young man from the Steelers’ colourful owner, Art Rooney, which simply read: “Rock – the team’s not doing well. We need you. Art Rooney.” It was the catalyst Bleier needed.

Success didn’t come overnight. Bleier trained his guts out in the offseason, stuttered in his first two seasons back in the game, but through sheer determination made himself indispensable to the Steelers – even achieving a record for yards rushed which still stands among the most made to this day.

Bleier epitomised old-school grit. The sort of courage Wales need to show on Saturday if they are to take history into their own hands and take the nation’s love affair with Gatland’s men to the next level.

* after gold, diamonds, platinum, minerals and some other stuff…

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The Lion Kings

Leigh the Lion

The ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky once said that you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.
Lions fullback Leigh Halfpenny should take comfort in that, having seen his long-range penalty shot at goal fall just short of the Australian posts in Melbourne last weekend. Trembling whispers of ‘he could get this’ suddenly gave way to ‘they should have run it’. A series that could have been won in the second test will now be settled on the final day. The Lions, players and fans alike, didn’t want this drama. Nonetheless, it’s what they got.

Is Gatland being conservative by recalling bruisers into his side, or is he being radical by changing its look so dramatically in a last throw of the dice? His forwards have been stirring in defence, shackling some of the game’s most potent runners, but the time has come to hurl some rugby player-shaped battering rams at the Australian line. Tour captain Sam Warburton is desperately unlucky to be ruled out through a hamstring injury: already he has silenced the legion of detractors who saw his appointment as Lions leader as premature. This experience will only make him stronger, which is a scary thought.

Sean O’Brien, Warburton’s replacement at openside, and Toby Faletau at eight offer a direct threat that has been lacking in the test matches thus far, with the inspirational blindside Dan Lydiate complementing the heavyweight back row. The recall of Wallaby legend George Smith at openside has all the makings of a fairytale for the Aussies, the soon-to-be 33-year-old having bizarrely chosen to retire from international rugby in February 2010 on a whopping 110 caps. Or will his return to the arena be more like that of Tigris, the former champion gladiator dragged out of retirement, only to be dispatched by the eponymous gladiator in Ridley Scott’s classic film? Either way, Smith (below) packing down with the ascending Ben Mowen and Wycliff Palu in the back row suggests that the breakdown could be the dogfight to end all dogfights.

The see-saw of power at scrum time in Melbourne could become more one-sided in Sydney with the reintroduction of loosehead Alex Corbisiero (as the big boy who doesn’t want the see to saw), and an altogether heavier Lions pack should seek to play the power game expected of them. The Australians will be chuffed that their front row hasn’t been completely overawed by the Lions, with prop Ben Alexander showing that reaching 50 caps in Melbourne last weekend wasn’t solely down to the fact that Prop World in Oz is a barren landscape.

Unleashed from the shackles of injury frustration are inside centre Jamie Roberts and scrum-half Mike Phillips (although the latter was mysteriously said to have been fit for selection in Melbourne). Roberts, 2009’s Man of the Series, has had to sit in the stands while his Welsh centre partner, Jonathan Davies, has done a credible job of laying claim to that title. Big game player that he is, Roberts can take this last shot at glory and disrupt Aussie midfielders Christian Leali’ifano and Adam Ashley-Cooper in a way they’ve yet to experience. And as for Brian O’Driscoll…

* * *
Gatland O'Driscoll

GATLAND GIVETH AND HE TAKETH…

Those arch-critics of Gatland’s team selection are using the omission of Brian O’Driscoll as the focal point of their ire. Ten Welsh players in the starting line-up is sinful, yes, but to drop BOD is downright evil. The coming of the Apocalypse as foreseen by Irish pundits and former Lions Keith Wood and Paul Wallace was to be expected: they’ve only had eyes for their countrymen on this tour. Wallace, for example, refuses to see the good work of a Tom Youngs for the stupendousness of a Rory Best. What are the Lions if not nationalistic?

That there are people out there who genuinely believe that Warren Gatland must be selecting players emotionally rather than logically, which defies belief. Warren Gatland wants to win a Lions series above all else, and this is the team he thinks can do it for him. In a blackly comic way, it is fitting that Gatland gave Brian O’Driscoll his first cap, and is now to all intents and purposes drawing the curtain on an illustrious career. O’Driscoll, one of the greatest players in rugby history, has already played his part in helping the Lions win the first test in Brisbane. Not that you could placate certain sections of the media with that sentiment.

The Telegraph went so far as to call the matchday squad “a team labouring under the misnomer of the British and Irish Lions”. If these people are so egalitarian then where was their uproar when only two Scots (one of whom is a dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi) were selected for the original touring party? The UK and Irish media is doing all the work for the Australian press (seen accurate artist’s impression below), which must be somewhat bemused that its standard skulduggery hasn’t been called for. To the contrary, the Aussie sports writers can kick back an enjoy a can of Hahn Premium Light while our own correspondents implode with apoplexy about the non-selection of a player who was doubtful to make the tour in the first place. More’s the pity, because there’s an epochal test match to be played on Saturday.

Aussie media

Thankfully, there have been some esteemed voices who’ve managed not to have embolisms after hearing of O’Driscoll’s non-selection, including -brace yourselves- an Irishman. Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, the Scourge of Lance Armstrong himself, tweeted: “The reaction to Brian O’Driscoll’s omission from Lions team [is] hysterical and borderline irrational. Attacking Lion of 2001 is long gone.” This was shortly followed by an even more insightful response: “The one person who won’t be hysterical and irrational is O’Driscoll himself. Ultimate team man will know and understand.”

* * *

THE ONCE AND FUTURE KINGS

Those fearmongers who say the future of the Lions is obsolete should they fail to win tomorrow are missing the point entirely. The next tour in 2017 is to New Zealand, where the likelihood is the Lions will once again come away empty-handed (albeit in more credit than the 2005 touring party); but this won’t stop the rugby lovers who, come Monday morning, will begin budgeting for that next ‘tour of a lifetime’.

If the Lions are unable to perform a smash and grab tomorrow in Sydney, then lessons will be learnt for British and Irish rugby that must be put into practice for the 2015 World Cup on home soil. Indeed, lessons will be learnt in defeat or victory, but it was the 2001 Lions’ inability to close out the series against the Wallabies which stung an already game-changing English national team into the ascendancy. Australia in 2001 gave rise to Australia in 2003, when Jonny Wilkinson –the hottest Lions topic just over a month ago – and company raised the Webb Ellis Cup in Sydney’s then Telstra Stadium.

2003 was the last great moment for Northern Hemisphere rugby on the world stage. A decade on, and at the same venue, the Lions have the rarest of opportunities to become kings. If an OBE is scant reward for their efforts, then perhaps a free pint in every pub up and down the land for the rest of their lives will suffice.

* * *

SYDNEY HARBOURS RESENTMENT (TO EXCHANGE RATES)

Sydney is feeling unloved. Were it not for the rampant (if transient) influx of Lions fans, it would probably contemplate jumping off a bridge. That’s because Sydney has failed to make the top ten cities in the prestigious Travel + Leisure magazine’s World’s Best awards. It reached a not-inconsiderable twelfth, but such achievements pale into insignificance when you take into account that it’s a 13-year low for the city that’s famously NOT the Australian capital.

According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, “the chief executive of Destination NSW says the good news from the awards is that Sydney is still the number one city in the Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific region” – which is a bit like saying that Liverpool is the nicest city in Merseyside.

The ranking has much to do with the current strength of the Australian dollar: the last thing you want to do after an arduous, eye-wateringly expensive flight across the world is to pay over 20 British pounds for a pizza. (Not when you can fill your boots for half that price in the UK at your local friendly Domino’s without having to leave the house.) It is a proud moment for British and Irish sport that so many Lions fans are willing to break the bank to watch their respective countries’ finest players perform on the other side of the globe, in a city that charges about £8 for a glass of beer that’s not even pint-sized.

How’s that for patriotic?

Lions fans in Sydney, from Dan Roan (BBC)

* * *

SONS OF BEACHES

The Wallabies and Lions have both been hitting the beach for some light R and R this week.
Here, Lions winger Tommy Bowe does the seemingly impossible and makes pilgrimages look sexy…
Tommy Bowe beach
… while Wallabies fullback Kurtley Beale is away with the fairies…
Kurtley Fairy
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The Melbourne Identity

Lions 1950

For those of you who have been hiding behind the sofa since Kurtley Beale stepped up to take that sure-fire penalty against the Lions last Saturday: it’s okay to come out. The Lions won, but Beale, the fullback who first joined up with the Wallabies as a prodigious 17-year-old whippersnapper, could make or break this series for his country.

It’s fortunate for Beale that his skills in attack are as exceptional as they are, because you would be hard-pressed to find an international fullback who is as tackle-shy as the 24-year-old Western Sydneysider. Last Saturday, he did a good impression of what Malcolm Tucker called “a sweaty octopus trying to unhook a bra”. Beale’s open door policy in defence was fractionally forgivable when it was gigantic George North running at him, but one should at least make it look like they’re making an effort to put in a hit.

Israel Folau

Such defensive inadequacies in the Wallabies backline bode well for the return of towering Tommy Bowe on the wing for the Lions. Given the breaks, the Ulsterman with the hyena grin could tear up the turf at Melbourne’s Docklands – and Beale for one will be unable to stop him. The man the Lions will perhaps be most wary of, given their prior knowledge of James O’Connor and Beale, is Israel Folau. Having scored twice on his debut last week (he celebrated one by throwing the ball at Leigh Halfpenny), he will feel he has this union malarkey sussed.

Ben Youngs, replacing Mike Phillips, cuts a confident figure at scrum-half for the Lions, and such changes (the introduction of Dan Lydiate in the back row -though Tom Croft has reason to feel aggrieved- and Geoff Parling at lock in place of Paul O’Connell) are enough to give Robbie Deans pause for thought. Just when he thought he’d figured out how to disrupt the Lions, Warren Gatland’s team shifts subtly. A big talking point has been Mako Vunipola, starting at loosehead, who has his critics to silence in the scrummaging department (a relatively new affront levelled at the former West Mon boy).

Alex Cuthbert

The elephant in the room is how the Wallabies could have won fairly convincingly had they converted at least a couple of their penalty kicks. Are the Lions losing sleep over this? Absolutely not. Certainly not players such as George North, who announced himself as rugby’s newest superstar with one of the great international tries, or Paul O’Connell, whose ballistic efforts in victory will give him a semblance of succour now that he is ruled out with a broken arm.

All of which means the Lions can ill-afford to believe O’Connor or Beale will forget their kicking boots this weekend. The lip service they have paid to killing off the Wallabies in this second test is fine, but they need to back that up with serious fire power from the outset. Christian Leali’ifano and Adam Ashley-Cooper will hope for more than a minute in the midfield together, unlike last weekend, and while most of us familiar with the Wallabies know all about AAC, the former has been a creative force in the Brumbies’ best Super Rugby season in nine years.

There are Lions fans who are unprepared to admit that British and Irish rugby is on the cusp of a new dawn. To do so would be to second-guess tomorrow’s result in Melbourne. Perhaps this is because the Aussies can still turn it around, as they did 12 years ago in this very same city. The onus is very much on the Lions back row of Cpt. Sam Warburton, Jamie Heaslip and Dan Lydiate to choke the life out of Australia.

To the victor the spoils.

Side note: Is it just me, or is it an unlikely coincidence that so many British and Irish internationals not selected for the Lions just happen to be holidaying out in Australia? Irish prop Tom Court seems to have benefited from such serendipity; less so Wales prop Craig Mitchell, who’s just been arrested for assault in a Brisbane bar.

* * *

Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Precinct

Melbourne gathers strength as she goes. Whether this delightfully trendy city’s motto is applicable to the Lions or the Wallabies during this 2013 series is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: British and Irish fans visiting the Victorian capital are in for a rare treat.

For those of us who spent too much time in front of the box as teenagers, some televisual favourites of yesteryear –from twentysomething drama ‘The Secret Life of Us’ to ‘Neighbours’ (back when it was good, and not on Channel 5)– are popular Melbourne exports. The underrated comedy masterpiece ‘Summer Heights High’ was also filmed in and around the city, as is the cult favourite ‘Underbelly’, which tells of Melbourne’s gangland wars throughout the years.

Melbourne can also lay claim –thought it might not wish to do so out loud– to Mark “Chopper” Read, the braggadocio, larger-than-life underworld criminal immortalised by Eric Bana (himself an AFL-loving Melburnian) in the titular ‘Chopper’. I once sat on a flight from Melbourne to Heathrow with the real-life Chopper’s chatty ex-girlfriend: I can safely say she was the most interesting single-serving friend I’ve ever had. As a social worker, she also had some terrifying tales to tell about ‘Ice’, a drug which she said was plaguing the city. Like I said: interesting.

Summer Heights High

Melbourne, you could say, is the sporting capital of the world. Walk down to the Melbourne Sports and Entertainment Precinct and you’ll find an athletic cluster of stadia along the Yarra River which is testament to the city’s sporting roots. The retractable roofs of the Millennium Stadium and Wimbledon (coming soon) are impressive until you consider that this relatively small area of land has three of them.

Rugby union’s Melbourne Rebels, 35-0 losers to the Lions this week, are overshadowed by their league brethren, Melbourne Storm, who in turn are in thrall to the crowds drawn to the Aussie Rules sides (100,016 rocked up at the MCG to watch Collingwood take on St Kilda in the 2010 Grand Final). To give you an idea of how Aussie Rules-orientated Melbourne is, the competition was originally called the Victorian Football League.

However, the city’s hierarchy of sport is beside the point. Melbourne appreciates and celebrates in equal measure the glories of athletic competition. Should tomorrow’s test match between the Lions and the Wallabies be anything as dramatic as last week’s, this city on the Yarra will have another tale to add to its rich history.  

Aussie Rules

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THE STOMPING GROUND

In Australia, the words ‘stomped’ and ‘bashed’ are used as official terms for assault. See for instance, “Sydney man bashed” or, more pertinently, “James Horwill cleared of stomping on Alun Wyn Jones’s head” – a stomp which meant the Welsh lock had to have stitches around the eye area.

It might just be me, but ‘stomped’ sounds like something a heavyfooted toddler would do when destroying a sandcastle, rather than what the 116kg Australian captain Horwill appeared to do to Wyn Jones’s bonce. ‘Bashed’, on the other hand, brings to mind the words that showed up on the screen during the 1960s Batman TV series when, as opposed to a more realistic meaty crunching noise, the Caped Crusader would beat people up with a playful ‘BAP!’ or ‘SPLONK!’.

It should be remembered that Horwill himself has experienced his fair share of damage to the eye area. Just look at what happened to him when a kindly French prop took a swing at him during an international match in 2008.

Never fear, this isn’t a section dedicated to the injustices that have befallen the Lions down the years (there’s not enough room for those), rather a celebration of Australian terminology. Another joyful example: to be ‘filthy’ about something is to be furious, as when Wallabies prop Ben Alexander said this week: “Graham Rowntree will be filthy about [the Lions forwards finished the match] and he will be working them hard this week.”

If the Lions’ hard work pays off tomorrow, the only thing filthy Down Under will be a nation of Aussies whose national rugby side has experienced a bashing at the hands of Britain and Ireland’s finest.

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The debate around the Horwill Stomp has been raging on. First the ARU cleared him of any wrongdoing -though video evidence shows quite the opposite- and now the IRB have quite rightly called it in; though somewhat pointlessly, given that they’re allowing him to play in the crucial second test. For the second week running, we’ll leave the last word to Brian Moore who, as both a solicitor and renowned firebrand on the field, has more grasp of this whole judiciary situation than most of us – and is ever so eloquent with it…

Brian Moore tweet

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