Nathan Sharpe, the most-capped Australia forward in history, has warned the British and Irish Lions that they will face a sustained physical onslaught from every side they face on tour, starting with the match against Western Force today.
The Force and the country's other provincial sides may lack their national squad players, withdrawn by the head coach, Robbie Deans, ahead of this month's Test series, but the 35-year-old Sharpe suggests the Lions will still encounter a succession of opponents desperate to rattle their illustrious visitors.
According to the ex-lock forward, who won 116 caps for Australia, the Lions may as well paint targets on their chests from day one. "In the midweek games I'd imagine the skill level is going to be lop-sided towards the Lions," said Sharpe, who is now a coaching consultant to Deans as well as a spokesperson for the tour sponsors HSBC.
"But I look back on the 2001 tour and there were a lot of midweek games where guys who had never played for the Wallabies were given a go. I've got memories of good fisticuffs, good punch-ups: Duncan McRae [on Ronan O'Gara] and Justin Harrison – who ended up playing for the Wallabies in the last Test – having run-ins with Austin Healey during the Brumbies game.
"The Lions are pumped up and they don't have any injuries but as the tour progresses each provincial side is going to take a little nibble out of them. It's about the guys who are picked getting stuck in.
"No one is saying the guys making their debut for the Force will be better than someone like Brian O'Driscoll. But the one great leveller in rugby is the physical element; it's the will to win that dictates most results. You can have all the skill but you have to have that attitude. I love all that, I want all the teams to get stuck in and create an us-versus-them mentality.
"In a way all the guys who play against the Lions in these tour games are representing Australia too. It is a very proud moment for them."
With Deans having already predicted an abrasive welcome – "The Force will really look to take them apart limb by limb … that's what hopefully they'll get for the duration of the tour" – there is a distinct theme emerging. Sharpe certainly does not view the midweek games as one-sided non-events, insisting Deans is absolutely right to wrap his key Wallabies in cotton wool.
He also exempts the Force coaches from criticism, with a Super 15 game against the Waratahs looming this weekend. "I know that the guys who won't be picked to play for the Force in this game would love to have played in both games but sometimes it's just not possible.
"There will be times when the franchises have their own agendas. NSW and Queensland will be without their Wallabies but that's fair enough as they have been busting it out for 15 weeks straight. It would be ridiculous to have them still playing a couple of weeks before the Lions series."
Add everything together and Sharpe can hardly wait. "I didn't really realise how big the Lions tour was in 2001. It seemed a bit strange because it was so long since the Lions had been in Australia before … I didn't know what rugby was back in 1989. But I sat in the stand for the first Test at the Gabba and I was mesmerised by it. It was probably the same for the guys on the field; they probably didn't know what was coming."
This time it is different. Sharpe stops short of predicting an automatic Wallaby triumph but insists the underdogs should not be lightly dismissed. "The team that wins the series is going to be one that handles the pressure the best. The British and Irish Lions have to bring a lot of different cultures together … that must be incredibly difficult after they've been bashing the snot out of each other week-in, week-out. It's a tremendous opportunity for Australia. There are so many games that you're supposed to win and you don't, or you're not supposed to win and you do. I think it'll be immense and I'm not even playing."
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