Playing catch-up rugby may hurt Lions yet again

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TWELVE years on from the last series decider in Sydney, and former British Lions coach Phil Larder admits there is still one lingering regret from the events that ruined their hopes of success.

However, it is not the infamous line-out steal at the death from Australia’s Justin Harrison when he intercepted Keith Wood’s throw to Martin Johnson and memorably helped the Wallabies crucially hold onto a 29-23 lead.

Larder, who was Graham Henry’s defensive coach on that tour, recalled to the Yorkshire Post: “We’d made an error in having a training session at the ground in Sydney where Andy Robinson did a lot of work on our line-out.

“Apparently the session was filmed by the Australians. They were supposed to be spying on us and they had our calls for that line-out in the final few minutes.

“We felt all we had to do was win the ball but Harrison got it and that was it all over.

“The Australian RU had also given all their spectators yellow caps and yellow waterproofs beforehand while pushing all the Lions fans up to the top of the stands so when we came out all we could see was yellow and not that famous sea of red we’d had in Brisbane,

“It didn’t bother our guys at all but it did seem to energise the Aussies.

“At the end, we thought we’d blown the series because we were the better team with the better players.

“But none of those things were the problem for me. The main regret – and the massive thing I’d have changed – happened before we’d even set off on tour.

“It’s no criticism of Graham Henry – he did an outstanding job and is a great coach – but it was his first experience of a Lions tour, my first experience and Andy Robinson’s too.

“What you tend to do is get the advice of people who’d been successful before so we had a meeting with Fran Cotton who’d been manager of the victorious Lions tour to South Africa in 1997.

“He told us how important it was they’d had six days of team-building before they set off to South Africa, blending the players from the four nations together.

“We did the same and the people who came in were pretty good.

“But we overlooked the fact we only had 10 days together in the UK before we flew out and during that team-bonding we couldn’t do any actual rugby.

“I was the first defensive coach in the UK with England so our lads knew the stuff I was coaching but the Irish and Welsh players hadn’t done any real defensive work at all.

“I needed a lot of time with them to get them sorted as a unit but we just didn’t have enough; we spent too much time climbing trees and walking along tight-ropes.

“We were out there (in Australia) and straight into the midweek game which meant we were playing catch-up from the off.

“I think this current Lions side is now doing the same.”

Larder, who coached Sheffield Eagles and Keighley Cougars as well as England and Great Britain’s rugby league sides before switching codes in 1997, fully understands why Lions chief Warren Gatland has plumped for a record-equalling 10 Welshman in his starting line-up for today’s vital game in Sydney.

That, of course, includes the centre pairing of fit-again Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, which ultimately led to the controversial axing of iconic Ireland and Lions star Brian O’Driscoll.

While many critics believe it is a foolhardy mistake to omit someone of the 34-year-old’s calibre and experience, Larder – who worked with the legendary player on both the 2001 tour and 2005 trip to New Zealand – feels it was the correct choice.

“O’Driscoll is probably one of the top four or five players that I’ve ever coached in either code,” he added, quite a credit considering he has had the likes of Johnson, Jason Robinson and league giants Ellery Hanley and Garry Schofield under his wing.

“He’s an unbelievable player with a great attitude and a true warrior, tremendously brave and so courageous at the breakdown. Obviously his body’s got battered a bit over the years because of that and, if I’m honest, I think he’d actually gone on too long.

“I was surprised he was even selected for this tour as I don’t think his Six Nations form warranted it. I think Gatland made absolutely the right call.

“Like Graham Henry before him – and most New Zealanders – he wants to get on the front foot straight away and get over the gain line which they didn’t do in the second Test.

“He needs big centres to do that and so he had to bring Jamie Roberts straight back in. Then it was always going to be a straight toss between Jonathan Davies and O’Driscoll.

“What I didn’t realise before is just how good Davies really is. He’s been one of the stars of this tour.”

Which begs the final question: are the Lions good enough to clinch a first series win Down Under in 24 years and avoid becoming the first to lose three successive tours?

“I don’t think this Australia team is as good as the one we played,” continued Huddersfield-based Larder, a crucial part of Sir Clive Woodward’s England coaching team for the side that famously won the 2003 World Cup final against the hosts Australia in Sydney.

“They are very, very weak at 10 in this series and don’t have a guy who can pull the strings and organise.

“Certainly they’ve no-one in the same class as a Stephen Larkham and that has meant they have struggled.

“Yet, despite that, in the second Test they obviously dominated territory and possession to sneak a win and level.

“This game (on Saturday) will all depend on how the Lions’ set-piece works.

“If it does, then I feel we will do it.”

dave.craven@ypn.co.uk