Durban-born Liam Wright has early memories of watching games at Johannesburg’s “hallowed” Ellis Park but never thought he’d be playing his first game there as Queensland captain.
But years of boarding at Brisbane’s Anglican Church Grammar, more commonly known as rugby nursery Churchie, proved the perfect conversion therapy for the 22-year-old.
The new Reds skipper learnt what it meant to be a Queenslander there, where he was part of a 2014 team featuring NRL trio Kalyn Ponga, Brodie Croft and Jaydn Su’A that went undefeated through the GPS season.
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The backrower is now the fresh face of Brad Thorn’s Reds and, after coughing up a 10-point lead to lose their Super Rugby opener to the Brumbies, knows a win against the Lions would be “massive”.
“I watched a few games here when I was younger,” Wright said.
“Returning with a captain’s armband (with Queensland) is definitely not how I pictured it.
“But I’m looking forward to it; it’s just a classic, traditional ground and one you hear about growing up here in South Africa.
“It’s hallowed turf and they’ll (the Lions) definitely be strong at home.”
The Reds bullied the Brumbies’ representative pack at times last Friday, their set piece impressive before the hosts rallied in the second half.
The Lions, licking their wounds after a heavy loss in Argentina to the Jaguares last weekend, boast a similarly physical pack.
But last year’s finalists showed there were ample ways through them in a 38-8 win.
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Wallabies lock Izack Rodda will return to the starting side this weekend while the hefty boot of Hamish Stewart at No.12 could exploit the thinner air of Ellis Park, which sits about 1800m above sea level.
His promotion from the bench has shifted James O’Connor to No.10 and Isaac Lucas to the pine, coach Thorn hopeful Lucas can make a late impact against tired legs.
The Reds move to Argentina next before their first home game, Thorn making clear that returning with one win from their around-the-world road trip would be a success.
The hosts start warm favourites but Wright said last season’s breakthrough against the Sharks in Durban – their first there in 15 years – enhanced their reputation as good travellers.
Wright pilfered the ball after the siren to seal that win and said it remained a poignant moment for the young group.
“It was an awesome game and … brought us closer and we’re a tight group, looking to replicate that this week with the Lions,” he said.
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