The Lions return to training today for the first time since Saturday’s second Test, when the Wallabies levelled the series with a 16-15 defeat of Gatland’s side in Melbourne.
Instead of flying into Sydney to prepare in the city of the series decider, the Lions travelled from Melbourne to Noosa in Queensland, hundreds of miles north of the third Test venue.
While the Wallabies have been in situ since Sunday, the Lions will not fly into Sydney until tomorrow, Gatland having given his players two days off in the hope they will recharge their batteries on the Sunshine Coast to ready themselves for the final game of the tour.
The Lions resumed training at local rugby club, Noosa Dolphins, and the decision for the detour was steadfastly supported yesterday by Irvine, even if he underestimated how far removed his touring party was from Sydney.
“It was always the case that we wanted a break and one of the factors up here was that it’s 500 miles north of Sydney and the chances are, you’re going to get slightly better weather. It’s a lovely environment. Sydney is a big city. To be stuck in Sydney for six days, in a concrete jungle – even though it’s an iconic city with a tremendous harbour bridge and an opera house and so forth – that’s not quite as conducive as what we’ve got up here.
“When I think back to my time playing; between the second and third Test in South Africa you went on safari, in New Zealand you went up to the Bay of Islands or somewhere warm, where there was a tourist resort. All we are doing is something very similar.
“We came out here for a recce a year ago, we checked the training grounds and to be absolutely honest, they weren’t really up to standard. But the local rugby club have worked really hard with the local tourist board and put a lot of money into it. The facilities are absolutely super; I couldn’t think of a better place for the players to be than up here.”
With Gatland due to name his team for the final Test overnight, Irvine said he was confident the players would be able to snap out of rest and recreation mode and flick the switch back on for the resumption of training.
“All I can say is that these guys are seasoned, hardened pros, even the young ones. Two thirds of this squad are on a Lions tour for the first time but the way they’ve applied themselves has been a tremendous credit to themselves, their clubs and their countries. They are extremely focused. I don’t think they will be anything other than 100% up for it.”
Irvine was being cagey about whether Jamie Roberts, Alex Corbisiero and Mike Phillips would be passed fit to make the team having sat out Saturday’s defeat, other than to say the trio “have all made good progress”.
He added: “The medics are reasonably hopeful but we can’t say for certain at this moment.”
Definitely missing will be flanker Sam Warburton, the captain having been ruled out on Monday having torn a hamstring in the second Test, with Brian O’Driscoll the favourite to lead the team in his absence.
“We can’t hide from it, it’s a big blow to us,” Irvine said of Warburton’s injury. “I suppose on the positive side, we’re fortunate that it’s one of the positions in the touring party where we have tremendous reserve strength. Whoever was going to be left out of the back row was going to be bitterly disappointed because we’ve got seven world class players there.
“We feel for Sam, he’s been a super captain and a role model to the lads and hopefully we can go out and win the third Test for him.”
Irvine also paid tribute to O’Driscoll, set to play his final Lions Test this weekend at the climax of his fourth tour.
“I think you could ask anyone: Brian has been one of the greatest players on the planet in the last 20, 30 years. He has been an absolute role model off the field as well.
“When I see what Brian does on this tour, any kids that come up and ask for an autograph, ask for a photograph, he is always the first to find time. He is an absolute star. He is just a great ambassador for the game and you only have to look at his record on the field.
“I do feel for him because he has had so many bumps over the last 12, 13 years. I’m still amazed that he is in one piece. Even at his age he is unbelievably heroic, he is a great trainer. I can’t speak highly enough of him. I don’t think anyone else would say anything different, either.”
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