In the past five years, the professional game has gained a foothold in territory which was previously the preserve of rugby union. There is now more league on television in New Zealand than there is union, most of it glossily and entertainingly packaged from Australia, where the premier competition is the Winfield Cup. Rugby league has won over a sufficient number of converts for the New Zealand Rugby Union to have taken retaliatory action.
The realisation that the union game can no longer automatically command top billing in the preferences of this sport-obsessed nation has forced it to go out and compete in what has become an overcrowded market-place. For every promotional package produced by league, union counters with one of its own. The Super 10 series, so successfully launched this season and involving the top seven provinces from New Zealand and South Africa along with New South Wales, Queensland and Western Samoa, is expected to paralyse the creeping imperialism of the rival code.
The signs are that it is already succeeding. In the same way as American football enjoys a popularity in the UK wholly disproportionate to the numbers playing the game, so rugby league in New Zealand may turn out to be a fleeting fancy. Viewing figures which peaked two years ago have been dropping recently.
Nevertheless, the Lions, despite being the first major touring side here for 10 years, have, until Plymouth last week, received a muted welcome which has had nothing to do either with the style of rugby or their off-field manner, which has been exemplary. Rather it is the result of a growing sophistication in the country and the fact that rugby union is no longer the all- pervading influence that it was.
So far this Lions side, friendly, gregarious and well-managed, have succeeded in avoiding the pitfalls into which so many of their predecessors have fallen. Even if they were to lose the Test series, one feels that they will escape the vitriolic criticism which followed the tours of 1977 and 1983.
The dismay, bordering on outrage, which greeted the four Home unions ruling that Wade Dooley could not return to play for the Lions was understandable. But the tour rules on the subject are quite clear and now that Martin Johnson is a fully fledged Lion, the touring party is up to strength. The reasons for a player's departure from the tour are irrelevant and, in hindsight, Dooley may reflect that the unions' decision was the right one for the team and for him. There was little chance that he would have won a place in the Test side, and the most that the selectors could have offered him was a run out in the mid-week match against Waikato. That would have been an inappropriate farewell for a great player.
The selectors clearly have Johnson in mind as Martin Bayfield's partner for the second Test in Wellington on Saturday. They were mightily impressed by his performance against Taranaki, although not unreservedly so. It was, after all, one of the smallest provincial packs I can recall confronting the Lions, and Johnson himself will know that the space he found for himself in the line- out at New Plymouth will not be afforded to him again on this tour.
In what was the closest he has ever come to revealing his coaching philosophy in public, Ian McGeechan asserted that the pre- tour conception of the Lions as over-aged and under-paced was purely a false one in light of the tourists' displays so far. While one hesitates to disagree with the sage, his comments take little account of the fact that the Test pack has undergone a quite dramatic reconstruction since the start of the tour, and has been significantly altered in style by the switching of Ben Clarke to the blindside, Jason Leonard to the tight head and by the inclusion of the sprightly Johnson at lock. All three have fully deserved their selection and the changes certainly bear out McGeechan's theories on evolution, but they do nothing to dispel the doubts about the original selection of the touring party.
Will Carling, perhaps the most naturally gifted member of the side, was both dignified and gracious when he heard of Scott Gibbs's promotion to the likely Test XV against Auckland. He generously acknowledged that Gibbs was worth his place, but that, given the chance, he would win it back against Hawke's Bay on Tuesday. Carling may not have been at his best on this tour, but he has not played badly. Perhaps he has been trying too hard.
Better to wait for the opportunities to happen, although there were few enough at Christchurch last Saturday when defences on both sides were uncompromisingly secure. There is talk that the All Blacks may make as many as five changes for the second Test which, from a body as traditionally conservative as the All Black selectors, is hard to believe. On past form they would be unlikely to be so savage on a losing side, let alone a winning one. There are, however, concerns about the line- out, where Bayfield, when he moved to the middle, was a hard man to bypass. The long, flat throw to the tail which Otago employed to great effect was a non- starter at Lancaster Park.
There has been criticism, too, of Ant Strachan's play. In the estimation of many he is not in the top five scrum-halves in New Zealand, and it is true that had Clarke made his Test debut at blindside against a destructive runner like Otago's Stu Forster rather than the predictability of Strachan, the Englishman might have been more severely tested.
Quite rightly, the Lions have concluded that they were more than a little unfortunate to lose the first Test and that there is much they can improve upon for the second. They also believe there are limits as to how much the All Blacks can improve, particularly behind the scrum where they are beaten for pace and in creative thought by the Lions backs. How much it will enrich and enliven this tour if they are right.Reuse content