After six matches in six cities involving constant travel across 18 days, not to mention the constant attention to the injury list and the biting reality of their first defeat, the British and Irish Lions set up camp in Brisbane on Wednesday to finish off preparations for the series-opening test against Australia.
If past results are any gauge, it’s like a home away from home for the combined team from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
We're bitterly disappointed and will take the hit
The Lions have won all seven tests they’ve played in Brisbane, including the brutal ‘Battle of Ballymore’ in 1989, and have only lost once in 25 matches dating back to 1888 in the Queensland state capital – a shocking loss to the provincial team in 1971.
Until Tuesday night’s 14-12 defeat to the ACT Brumbies in cold and wet conditions in Canberra, that was the Lions’ last loss to one of Australia’s provincial teams.
Assistant coach Rob Howley appeared before a news conference on arrival Wednesday, ready to rule a line under the narrow loss to the Super Rugby-leading Brumbies that ended the Lions hopes of an undefeated 10-match tour.
“We had a meeting about the game and the nature of a Lions tour is that you must move on,” he said.
“We’re bitterly disappointed and will take the hit.
“On a Lions tour you talk about the importance of momentum and in the last four or five matches we’ve had momentum. Now it’s about how we react to that game.”
Every member of the Lions squad – including the reinforcements drafted in as injury cover in the last week – has had game time to push for selection, giving head coach Warren Gatland plenty to consider before he unveils his 23-man test squad on Thursday for Saturday’s opener against the Wallabies.
Weighing up the loss, and how the second-string Lions squad was beaten at the breakdown by the Brumbies, Howley said: “Absolutely something like this can make you stronger.”
“It gave us a reality check, in particular at the breakdown. We move on.”
Gatland used the ‘reality check’ line late on Tuesday night. By Wednesday, he’d had some decent news: big Welsh winger George North was fit to play in the first test, and English center Manu Tuilagi was still progressing well in his recovery from a shoulder injury.
Welsh center Jamie Roberts and Irish winger Tommy Bowe are unlikely to return to test calculations until the second match in Melbourne on June 29.
The Lions opened their tour with a 59-8 win over the Barbarians in Hong Kong on June 1, and followed it up with a bigger win over the Western Force in Perth before a tighter 22-12 win over the 2011 Super Rugby champion Queensland Reds in Brisbane. Confidence-boosting wins over a Combined Country team in Newcastle and the New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney followed before the Brumbies, with South Africa’s 2007 World Cup winning coach Jake White at the helm, ended their winning run.
Gatland is expected to stick with a large contingent of his Welsh players in the Lions’ 23, but there is no certainty over combinations, including in the midfield. Irish veteran Brian O’Driscoll is a likely starter at center and will be hoping to relive his spectacular, defense-splitting performance in the first-test victory against the Wallabies in 2001 – the first of his four Lions tours.