Combined Country 0-64 British & Irish Lions
A hark back to the amateur era
Tom Hamilton in Newcastle
June 11, 2013
The Lions' Brian O'Driscoll takes on Combined Country's Lewie Catt, Queensland-New South Wales Combined Country v British & Irish Lions, Hunter Stadium, Newcastle, June 11, 2013
The Lions' Brian O'Driscoll takes on Combined Country's Lewie Catt at the Hunter Stadium © Getty Images
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The Combined Country team consisted of shop workers, students, an electrical engineer, a plumber, a doctor, a carpenter, a labourer, a removalist and a smattering of Super Rugby talent; the only thing missing was a candlestick maker.

It was never going to be a close match, the pre-game betting handicap was 77 points. The supporters in the stand, and you expect the players on the field, predicted a walkover and that is what materialised.

Newcastle did its best to up the ante in the days running up to the game. Red billboards advertised the match by the harbour while shuttle buses were put on for supporters. There was a friendly feel to the whole occasion with a game of touch rugby being played in the backdrop of the Newcastle Harness Racing Club which is stationed behind the stadium. It was probably a more closely fought match than the one a stone's throw away.

The city is used to seeing rugby of a different code at the Hunter Stadium with league side the Knights the darling of the region. Emile Heskey is also one of the local heroes when he runs out for the Jets. But the crowd inside the ground took to the Country team. Everyone loves an underdog and this bunch personified that tag.

There was a wonderful romance to the game with numerous on-field sub-plots. The pre-game press coverage in the Newcastle Herald focused on the match-up at outside centre. The difference in weight between the opposing No.13s was one kilogramme, but the contrast in experience was vast. Local boy Lewie Catt, who turns out for the Wanderers Newcastle, was called into the starting line-up on Monday. Come Tuesday, he was playing against Brian O'Driscoll.

Catt typified the occasion. He will have tomorrow off and will return to his day job on Thursday as an electrical engineer. But he will be able to tell his workmates about the time he played against one of the game's finest players. And he also has a souvenir with him sitting proudly wearing O'Driscoll's shirt in the post-match press conference.

There were similar stories all over the park with dread-locked tight-head Tim Metcher, a branch assistant at Tradelink, facing Alex Corbisiero.

While the Lions ran in ten tries, the loudest cheers were reserved for their courageous opponents. When Alex Cuthbert's kick was charged down in the early stages of the match, the ground erupted. Fingers were crossed and prayers made that the 20,071 supporters in the stand would see the blue and yellow of the Country side have the chance to celebrate at least one score. In the end they nearly got that opportunity in the 67th minute but for Dale Ah Wang's knock-on.

 
"The scoreboard was one sided and the match itself pretty forgettable but for the Country side which consisted of 10 amateurs."
 

At times it resembled little more than opposed training for the Lions, the first scrum was brutal. Their tries received polite applause with the tension of Saturday's thriller against the Reds a world away from the atmosphere in Newcastle. At either end of the ground were grass banks with those in Wallaby shirts, Lions tops and fancy dress all mixing and drinking in both the spectacle and their own beverages. The occasional chant of 'Lions, Lions, Lions' broke out while those of an Emerald Isle persuasion sang 'Ireland's Call' sporadically but without the gusto you would experience in Dublin.

But while the Lions will now move on to Sydney for what will be a completely different game to that witnessed on Tuesday, they will always have a special place in their eclectic history for this part of Australia. Earlier today a group of Lions, dignitaries, media and locals visited Robert Seddon's grave - the original Lions captain from the 1888 tour who died while rowing on the Hunter River a few kilometres from the stadium.

Rugby and the Lions have changed immeasurably from his days. But the game on Tuesday harked back to the amateur era in many ways. For 80 minutes, if you could switch off from the smattering of sponsorship on and off the field, it was two groups of fifteen men from completely different backgrounds playing the game, for the love of it. The scoreboard was one sided and the match itself pretty forgettable but for the Country side which consisted of 10 amateurs, they will hold on to the memory of the night they faced the 2013 Lions as their captain Tim Davidson said post-match.

"I really hope this becomes a full-time fixture in the years to come. It gave guys from the Bush an opportunity to play against an outstanding touring side. It is something that we will remember for the rest of our lives. When we get together in the future we will talk about how fantastic this opportunity was and how much we enjoyed it. I think that's what rugby is all about."

Andy Irvine. Sam Warburton and Manu Tuilagi stand alongside Robert Seddon's grave © PA Photos
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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.

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