Elder Iro fires Kiwis' heart

Click to follow
The Independent Online
You could have got handsome odds a couple of years ago on Tony Iro's Test career carrying on longer than that of his infinitely more glamorous younger brother. But while Leeds' enigmatic Kevin Iro drifts around beyond the fringes of the New Zealand squad, Tony will tomorrow night be part of a back row that threatens all manner of problems for Great Britain in the first Test at Ericsson Stadium.

The elder Iro typifies the knack that the Kiwi coach, Frank Endacott, seems to be developing for extracting valuable contributions from some unlikely sources. Tony certainly falls into that unlikely category. He only decided to dabble in rugby league because he had travelled to England as company for Kevin when he took up a Wigan contract in 1987 that made him the best-paid young player in the game.

In his own quiet way, Tony established himself at Wigan as a winger, before going to Australia and transforming into a second-row forward. It is in the past two seasons, under Phil Gould's coaching at Sydney City, that the change into a skilful ball handler has become complete.

"We've had a good side there which has helped me to develop that part of my game," Iro says. "I got forced into the role in England during the World Cup last year when there were not many other options. I'm still learning what Frank wants from me."

Iro is already producing some of the best rugby of his career at the age of 29 and forms a potentially destructive back three with Steve Kearney and Tyran Smith, a rangy, dreadlocked runner who starts a Test for the first time tomorrow.

Iro, however, knows enough about the English scene to be wary of predictions that New Zealand, following their impressive victories over Papua New Guinea, are going to be far too strong for the Lions.

"There are a lot of blokes who we didn't expect to see over here," he admits when he scans the names in a withdrawal-hit British party. "But they are a young team who will be pretty keen. It's going to be a lot closer than the papers here think."

Great Britain will not mind their hosts starting the series as favourites. When the Kiwis clicked in the second half of their World Cup semi-final against Australia in October they showed their rich potential and have built on that promise.

They have particular strengths at full-back, through their captain, Matthew Ridge, and in their two wingers, Sean Hoppe and Richard Barnett, while Grant Young and the substitute, Joe Vagana, are front rowers of power and vigour.

The other reason for the Kiwis to be regarded here as a sure thing is that the New Zealand public have seen nothing from the tourists yet to impress them. The British first-choice's failure to fire in their opening game in Auckland is far more significant than the second string's defeat in Wellington on Tuesday.

But midweek games in New Zealand are a notoriously bad guide to Test form. "The result in Wellington doesn't worry us at all," the Great Britain coach, Phil Larder, said. "It's like being in a major final and your reserve team losing the previous week. That's how relevant it is."

#As he tries to prove that contention, however, Larder does promote one player from that beaten side, the Wigan prop, Terry O'Connor, who gets his second chance at Test level.

"Terry came away as a first-choice prop and played in the Test in PNG, but he had a very poor game when he was particularly badly affected by the heat and humidity," said Larder. "He has played very well in the midweek side since then and I had virtually made up my mind before the Wellington match to bring him in. His work in attack and defence in that game just confirmed it for me."

NEW ZEALAND (v Great Britain, first Test, Auckland, tomorrow): Ridge (Manly); Hoppe (Canberra), Timu (Canterbury), Blackmore (Auckland), Barnett (Cronulla); Ngamu (Auckland), Jones (Auckland); Young (South Queensland), Eru (Auckland), Pongia (Canberra), Kearney (Auckland), Iro (Sydney City), Smith (South Sydney). Substitutes: Wiki (Canberra) Ellis, Vagana, Swann (all Auckland).

GREAT BRITAIN: Spruce (Bradford); Hunte (St Helens), Radlinski (Wigan), Powell (Keighley), Sullivan (St Helens); Harris (Warrington), Goulding (St Helens); Broadbent (Sheffield), Cunningham (St Helens), O'Connor (Wigan), Betts (Auckland), Sculthorpe (Warrington), Farrell (Wigan). Substitutes to be named.