Final glory is still anyone’s to take, says ex-Lion Alan Tait

Immortalised as a key spoke in the 1997 British and Irish Lions’ wheel, ex-Newcastle Falcons star Alan Tait tells Mark Smith why the class of 2013 are set to go right down to the wire

Former Newcastle Falcons head coach Alan Tait
Former Newcastle Falcons head coach Alan Tait

Two tests in, two penalties to snatch victory and two failures to do so – it is now all eyes on Sydney this Saturday when Australia and the British and Irish Lions go at it in the series decider the whole world has been waiting for.

That much is certainly true for Alan Tait, the Scottish international who is among the select few to have represented the home nations in both union and league.

“For the neutral it is absolutely bang right to have it go down to a decider, but I doubt the players will see it that way,” said the former Falcon, who turns 49 today.

Scoring one of two Lions tries in their first-Test victory over the then-world champion Springboks in 1997, Tait recalled: “I know when we beat South Africa, it was massive for us to get the series won with one Test still to go.

“We stung the Springboks in that first Test in Cape Town. Neil Jenkins kicked his goals in the second in Durban and that was the way we won it.

“This current series is similarly close, and you have to give credit to both sets of players for making it so hard to predict. There is very little recovery time for either squad this time round, and it is shaping up to be a cracker.”

Casting no shadow over Leigh Halfpenny for the long-range penalty miss which denied the tourists a series victory in Melbourne last weekend, Tait said: “He has done a superb job at full-back, and his goal-kicking throughout the whole tour has been fantastic.

“I don’t think anyone would blame him for missing that final kick, given how far out it was. You would put that down as a shot to nothing, and he is still a top player.” Impressed by a number of Halfpenny’s countrymen, he added: “I singled out Jonathan Davies as my bolter before the tour party had even flown out, and he has just got a bit of everything to his game.

“He does the basics well, he can nudge it through with his foot and having him at 12 gives Brian O’Driscoll that little bit more room outside.

“The Aussies are never bad defenders, and I just felt that if we had gone for Jamie Roberts and Manu Tuilagi in the centres then it was going to be too predictable. Davies brings that balance.”

Last weekend’s iconic image, without doubt, was the sight of giant winger George North picking up opposite number Israel Folau and running down the field with the Australian on his back like a sack of coal.

Tait likens the raw excitement around the Welsh tyro to one of his own childhood heroes, Aussie rugby league great Mal Meninga, stating: “North on the wing has been absolutely outstanding, and reminds me of somebody like Mal.

“I remember him arriving on the scene as a young bloke, and even with his huge stature he still had the speed to go with it. North seems to have that too, and having a talent like that is a huge benefit to any side.”

With game-breakers so vital, the absence of Aussie icon Quade Cooper from the Wallabies squad is a head-scratcher which looks to be paying off, Tait saying: “I must admit I thought it was a crazy decision at the time, but Robbie Deans is a strong character and he seems to have been rewarded for that.

“Cooper has obviously upset him somewhere along the line. He was not wanted in the squad as a result and without him they have done well. It was a real gamble, especially when you consider the Wallabies don’t have a huge player pool, but it seems to have paid off for them.”

An admirer of Australian resilience, Tait added: “I thought Australia were superb in the first Test, even though they ended up losing the game.

“At the time I felt it might have rocked them, losing after such a big effort, but they nailed it last Saturday and showed that typical Australian mentality. They are a fantastic nation for sport, and even when adversity comes and hits them they just have that mental capacity to plough through it.

“They are a great nation to watch, and they just never give in.”

Pressed for a winner, the Scot conceded: “I think you have got to swing towards Australia, because the momentum is behind them now.

“The Lions are very much in it, though, and you have to remember the Wallabies still have key players missing. Neither side is going to run away with the game, and it is all set up to be another absolute nail-biter.

“I would expect it to go down to the last 10 minutes, and I don’t think the Wallabies are the kind of team that are suddenly going to lash 20 points on the Lions. They will struggle to do that, but it will be a big push from both teams and I think we are set for a really close finish.”

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