Rugby Union: All Blacks shatter the dream

Click to follow
The Independent Online
New Zealand. .30 British Isles. .13

TWIN impostors they may be, but seldom in the history of sporting conflict, has the difference between victory and defeat meant so much.

Victory, and the 1993 Lions would have been hailed as one of the finest sides ever to tour New Zealand, their deeds carried to the catacombs of age. Defeat, such as the one which befell them at Eden Park yesterday, and they would return home with one of the least enviable records in Lions history. In the end, the series was decided by the slenderest of threads, a hair's- breadth decision by the Australian referee Brian Kinsey in the first Test at Christchurch.

The gap between the sides was certainly not as great as the margin of the All Blacks' victory yesterday, but they had the same craving for success which the Lions had displayed last week in Wellington. The result has prolonged the careers of several All Blacks and their two coaches, Laurie Mains and Earle Kirton, but the New Zealanders were never as black as they were painted in some quarters after their defeat at Athletic Park. Those who interred them may find it hard to explain away such a resurrection in the space of a week.

The All Blacks' connections had no problems at all in giving the reasons for their success. This time they had played to the strategies laid out for them, and had overcome what they believed to be the Lions' negative tactics by the speed and weight of their support. Having outnumbered the Lions in the concession of penalties by almost two to one, the All Blacks may not have been in the ideal position to apportion blame, but there can be no denying the improvement in their performance. These were more like the All Blacks we know and have come to fear.

For much of the time they denied the Lions the ball, and therefore the opportunities which had come their way in Wellington. Before the game, Ian McGeechan, the Lions' coach, had made out a list of the things the All Blacks would have to do if they were to win the series. High on it was the line-out, where the Lions had inflicted terrible damage.

The All Blacks had devised a number of tactics designed to keep the ball in play. Inevitably, these depended upon the accuracy of Grant Fox, and he responded superbly to the challenge. Kick after towering kick was dispatched towards the Lions' captain, Gavin Hastings. Under this relentless barrage even the mighty Hastings cracked. He was less than secure in his fielding and so uncertain in his defensive alignment that he once left a yawning gap behind his threequarter line which the new cap Lee Stensness exploited for Frank Bunce to score the first New Zealand try.

He was curiously fallible in attack, his decision to go on his own rather than pass to Rory Underwood, unmarked outside him, was a crucial misjudgement. Hastings himself felt that he would have exposed his wing to the full force of John Kirwan's tackle had he passed, but it was the wrong option. It seemed grossly unfair that someone who has performed so magnificently throughout the tour should have been mocked by fate at the final hurdle, but Hastings will be remembered in New Zealand as one of the finest full-backs ever to have toured the country. His two penalties and the conversion of Scott Gibbs's try took him past the century of points for the tour.

The three changes the All Blacks had made after Wellington turned out to be astute ones. At No 8, Arran Pene drove low and hard in typical Otago style and around him both flankers, Jamie Joseph and Michael Jones, hounded the Lions into retreat. Joseph was also more competitive at the line-out than in the previous two Tests. Stensness, playing in midfield, brought additional width to the All Blacks' attack, his acceleration stimulating a previously blinkered threequarter line into positive action. Ian Jones, brought back at lock for Mark Cooksley had a short innings, going off after 18 minutes with a calf injury and being replaced by Cooksley.

But both before and after his departure, the All Blacks' locks were up to every trick, bumping and boring to prevent Martin Johnson and Martin Bayfield from exerting anything like the same control they had in the second Test. This time the line-out count went conclusively to the All Blacks, even if they were operating on the cusp of legality. Once again, however, Patrick Robin, the referee, had an excellent match. He missed very little and the only blights on the All Blacks' day were the number of penalties they conceded in the early stages and the number of times indiscipline persuaded M Robin to march them back 10 metres or to reverse his original decision.

It was another marvellous day for Fox. Three penalties and two conversions took him to 600 points in his 44 internationals. He even had as glaring an opportunity as he will ever have to score a try, but with the try-line a couple of steps away, he chose to pass to Kirwan. Rory Underwood got his hands to the ball first and the chance was lost. But it was the withering accuracy of his tactical kicking which changed the course of the series.

The Lions' response to this pressure was sadly inadequate. Their scrummage - with Olo Brown getting through to Brian Moore in more ways than one - never looked comfortable and in the loose the All Blacks' policy of moving the ball wide at speed meant that the Lions back row was at full stretch.

Even so, Ben Clarke played another blinder on the flank and he has, without question, been the player of the series. Behind, Morris' service - so smooth last week in Wellington - was uncomfortably erratic and apart from two scorching runs by Ieuan Evans and a couple of deft flicks of Guscott's wrists which turned bad ball into good, there was little to admire in the Lions' back play.

For once it was the Lions who scored first, Hastings kicking a penalty and Gibbs getting the first try of the match. Underwood had made ground into the All Blacks' 22, running at Andrew's inside elbow. His pass to no one in particular bounced off Bunce's knee and Gibbs, ever alert to the slightest chance, was on to the ball in a trice. If there was terminal decay gnawing at the All Blacks' spirit, this would have exposed it. But they responded within five minutes, when Bunce exploded on to a kick into untenanted space by Stensness.

From that point it was the Lions who were in terminal decline. The All Blacks launched a series of ambitious offensives, and after John Timu had outflanked the Lions' defence on the right, Sean Fitzpatrick, who had endured a week of criticism, was driven over the Lions' line. Fox, who had converted both tries, then kicked his first penalty two minutes before half-time.

Hastings, who had missed with three kicks at goal in the first half and was to miss another in the second, did however succeed in keeping the Lions in touch with a penalty which brought up his hundredth point of the tour. All they needed now was a solitary gleam of good fortune and some respite from the ceaseless battering. They got neither. The Lions' machinery, so slick the previous week, was shunted back. Fox, again with a penalty, and Jon Preston with the simplest of tries through a disorientated defence, which had been scattered initially by Joseph, secured the victory which, from the start, had never looked in doubt.

The All Blacks had gained their revenge, their triumph every bit as convincing as the Lions' had been in Wellington. The series, as many feared, had been lost at Christchurch, and with it disappeared the most coveted prize of all, which would have been a fitting reward for Ian McGeechan and Peter Winterbottom to take with them into honourable retirement.

NEW ZEALAND: J Timu (Otago); J Kirwan (Auckland), F Bunce (North Harbour), L Stensness, V Tuigamala; G Fox (all Auckland), J Preston (Wellington); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown, R Brooke (all Auckland), I Jones (North Auckland), J Joseph, A Pene (Otago), M Jones (Auckland). Replacements: M Cooksley (Counties) for I Jones 18 mins. Z Brooke (Auckland) for M Jones 73 min. Temporary substition: M Cooper (Waikato) for Timu 65 min.

BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Scotland, capt); I Evans (Wales), J Guscott (England), S Gibbs (Wales), R Underwood; R Andrew, D Morris (all England); N Popplewell (Ireland), B Moore, J Leonard, M Johnson, M Bayfield, B Clarke, D Richards, P Winterbottom (all England).

Referee: P Robin (France).

Scores: Hastings (pen, 18 min, 0-3); Gibbs / Hastings (try / con, 23 min, 0-10); Bunce / Fox (try / con, 28 min, 7-10); Fitzpatrick / Fox (try / con, 31 min, 14-10); Fox (pen, 43 min, 17-10); Hastings (pen, 52 min, 17- 13); Fox (pen, 58 min, 20-13); Preston / Fox (try / con, 67 min, 27-13); Fox (pen, 74 min, 30-13).

Cooke's skills, page 26

(Photograph omitted)