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British & Irish Lions
The 'eclipse' and the Lions launchpad
Tom Hamilton in Sydney
June 14, 2013
The Waratahs welcome the Lions to Sydney © Getty Images

Although Duncan McRae was a figure of hate after his 11-punch assault on Ronan O'Gara during the Waratahs' match against the British & Irish Lions in 2001, he has left an indelible mark on Lions history, and probably on O'Gara's eyebrow.

Much of the talk this week amongst the media and supporters of both the 'Tahs and the Lions has concerned that violent night back on June 23, 2001. It was an evening when the men in blue went out onto the field with the view of getting stuck in to the Lions. It propelled the sport on to the back pages of the Sydney newspapers, a rare occurrence.

Like the other places we have visited so far, union in Sydney is fighting an uphill battle to establish itself as the city's main sport. The rugby league side the Sydney Roosters and AFL's Sydney Swans are huge here. But the 'Tahs are doing their best to stand alongside them.

Earlier on Friday, I chose to take in the Waratahs' captain's run instead of the Lions'. Stationed out near the Allianz Stadium on the outskirts of the city, the 'Tahs are based there along with their local rivals from the other sports. They were training on an AFL pitch which was housed inside an old bus depot. Looming down from a nearby billboard were players from the local' footy' side the Sydney Swans.

And it is one of AFL and NRL's previous stars who is doing wonders to raise the profile of union in the city. When speaking to one of the local media about what it takes to get the Waratahs onto the back pages of the press, he answered 'Israel Folau'. He looks set to make his debut against the Lions in the first Test but the 'Tahs are not sure whether he will be there next season as he is reportedly toying with the idea of returning to 13-man form of the game.

If he leaves, then they will have to find a new poster boy. And there is every chance he could be playing against the Lions on Saturday, but unlike Folau, he will not be found on the wings, but he is in the pack. Will Skelton is a huge second-row. Now I've stood next to my fair share of second-rows in the past, I remember bumping into Danny Grewcock in my early years and stifling a minor scream at the sheer size of the man.

But even someone like No.8 Wycliff Palu looks up to Skelton. He is just 21 but weighs in at 135kg, down from 151kg, and has size 17 shoes. Word on the street is that his brother, who is in the Waratahs' academy, Cam is even bigger. A frightening prospect.

The Waratahs' Will Skelton outpaces the Force's Kieran Longbottom, Western Force v New South Wales Waratahs, Super Rugby, nib Stadium, Perth, June 9, 2013
Will Skelton on the charge for the Waratahs © Getty Images

Slowly but surely, Skelton is making a name for himself in the Australian scene - when he tackled Alby Mathewson on Sunday, the commentator labelled him "the eclipse". He won't figure in the Tests but he put in a great showing against the Force - he made ESPNscrum's team of the week - and will want to shine against the Lions.

It could be a match that propels him on to the world scene. Lions games have a habit of doing that for right or wrong reasons like McRae. But for the Waratahs as a club, Saturday's game is huge. They sold out the tickets in half an hour and 45,500 punters will be shoehorned into the Allianz come Saturday night.

Skippering the side will be Wallaby Dave Dennis and like McRae and potentially Skelton, the Lions helped him launch his career as well. Back in 2001, Dennis was a mere pup but he still remembers the tour fondly and when speaking to him earlier, he is looking to create some more good memories tomorrow.

"In the last Test of 2001 I played the curtain raiser," Dennis said. "I was in the U16s City v Country curtain raiser so I sat in the stand watching the Wallabies win the third Test. I heard Ealesy [John Eales] say it feels like a long time ago but it feels like yesterday. It's a weird sort of sensation that it was 12 years ago but I'm still playing the game, my body is holding up and I'm loving it. I'm just really looking forward to tomorrow night, the fans have been great and to get a full house here is just great for the club."

Lions be warned, through hook or by crook, Saturday's game is likely to propel the Waratahs on to the back pages of the local press.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

Tom Hamilton was brought up near the stands of the Recreation Ground and joined ESPN in 2011. He is now Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
Follow him on Twitter @tomESPNscrum