Rowntree expects dirt-trackers to set high bar

The British & Irish Lions complete their provincial schedule today against the Melbourne Rebels with the reminder that their performance and approach has a direct bearing on the outcome of the Test series.

Last Tuesday’s lacklustre display and 14-12 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra threatened to dent squad morale and derail the build-up to the opening Test against the Wallabies, but the midweek team’s positivity in defeat alleviated any concerns and forwards coach Graham Rowntree wants a similar outlook at AAMI Park today coupled, naturally enough, with a victory before the deciding Test matches over the next two Saturdays.

“We’ve said that right from the outset; that the attitude and intensity of the midweek team makes the series, because on a Saturday they were the ones who were straight into the changing room, congratulating the lads,” Rowntree said. “Then they are the guys who have to get up straight away on Sunday morning to train. We’re very careful about how we pick the squad with that in mind and their attitude has been impeccable so far.”

The sunny disposition in the wake of last week’s defeat may have belied deep disappointment at the players’ omissions from the Test side in Brisbane but, as Dan Lydiate, promoted yesterday to match captain after Geoff Parling was withdrawn from the side in the wake of Paul O’Connell’s tour-ending arm fracture, said, the incentive to make an impression once again makes victory over the Rebels a necessity for the individuals involved.

“We just know it’s a massive opportunity,” said Lydiate, who featured off the bench in the nail-biting 23-21 first Test victory over the Wallabies last Saturday.

“Everyone wanted to play in the first Test and there were a lot of disappointed boys who didn’t get picked in that match day 23, and boys didn’t get on the pitch from the bench.

“So it’s our chance now to put our hands up and all the boys are champing at the bit, especially for the next two games.”

Though the odds still appear long for many of today’s starting 15, Sean O’Brien perhaps has the best chance of the midweekers in forcing his way into the second Test match day squad, by ousting his captain and fellow back row Lydiate from the replacements’ bench. The Leinster man was in the unenviable position of being 24th man for the first Test, having to warm-up at the Suncorp Stadium and then watch from the sidelines as the Lions went about their work.

Today he will bid to force a rethink and earn promotion to the 23 with a big performance in Melbourne starting at openside flanker.

“The coaches are telling us this and we have to put trust in them as well,” O’Brien said of his Test chances.

“We can only look after ourselves. We have another match to play and there is no point going out thinking we haven’t a chance; that will only affect your performance so you have to do what you can do and do the best you can do every opportunity you get in a Lions jersey.”

It will be the Rebels’ first opportunity to score an upset over the Lions, having only been formed three seasons ago as Australia’s fifth Super Rugby franchise.

Occupying mid-table under head coach Damien Hill, their season has been seen as one of underachievement by their ambitious owners and the Lions will face a fired-up side missing only four frontline players, the injured Wallabies back row Scott Higginbotham, and on-duty Test players Kurtley Beale, James O’Connor and Nick Phipps.

The Rebels, captained by Welsh No 8 Gareth Delve, will also hand a first start to former Wallabies scrum-half Luke Burgess, recently returned to Australia following a two-season stint with Toulouse in France.

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