Rugby Union: Andrew born again to play a decisive role: The England stand-off looks forward to deciding Test as New Zealand fight flair with flair. Steve Bale reports from Hamilton

Click to follow
LIFE with the Lions differs in its effect. For some - quite a few on this tour of New Zealand, actually - it starkly lays bare their inadequacies. For others the supreme challenge evokes a supreme response. For the second time in two tours Rob Andrew is a born-again rugby player, ready to play a decisive role in Saturday's deciding third Test against the All Blacks in Auckland.

As a response to tribulation, it has been typical Andrew, typical in the same sense as 1989, when he was not an original choice for the Lions in Australia but flourished as soon as he had replaced the injured Irish stand- off, Paul Dean. He displaced Craig Chalmers in the last two Tests; the Lions won both, and the series 2-1.

Deja vu. Now here he is in New Zealand, where he probably would not have been if Chalmers had not broken his arm playing for Scotland against England in the first international Andrew had missed for five years. By any reckoning Stuart Barnes, having finally edged Andrew out of the England team, had been the likelier Test stand-off.

How differently it has worked out. While Barnes was not considered for the first Test because of a head wound and then had to suffer in the obviously inferior Lions midweek side - the Hawke's Bay humiliation was the last straw for him - Andrew has gone about his business with his usual unfussy efficiency.

Last season, when England needed the spark that Barnes provided against the Scots, unfussy efficiency was not enough, not when undermined by the hesitancy and lack of confidence which so affected Andrew that the England selectors dropped him.

In a way, it was scarcely his fault. The Rugby Football Union had shot itself in the foot and Andrew in the back by imposing the full 120-day qualification period before he could play competition rugby after rejoining Wasps from Toulouse in November. No wonder the edge was rubbed off his game.

Just as in Australia in 1989, the aura of a Lion hangs comfortably around him and his masterly contribution to the triumphant second Test simply confirmed his re-elevation over Barnes. It is the longest-running stand-off in rugby, going back to 1985, and nearly always Andrew has been ahead, as far as the selectors were concerned anyway.

Hence Andrew's 51 caps (50 at stand-off, an England record) to Barnes's 10. But when next season kicks off, the two 30-year-olds will be where Andrew believes they started this tour: back on level terms. For this he can thank the Lions, and of course his response to them, but not - however meritorious Barnes's selection may have been - his own England management.

'I was disappointed at being left out but not bitter in the way some people represented it,' Andrew said here yesterday. 'All I said was that I'd like to sit down with the manager and discuss it, which you never have the chance to do when you get the dreaded phone call giving you the news.' That England manager was Geoff Cooke, now the Lions manager in New Zealand.

That was the background but as Cooke had until then been an inveterate Andrew supporter, redemption was always possible provided he could gain selection for the Lions tour. Once out of the England team, though, the problem was to make the tour. 'The possibility of not being picked in the Lions was very real, but if there's one thing I've learned it's that anything can happen,' he said.

'Stuart was playing for England, Craig for Scotland, and I was on the England bench. Then suddenly during the England-Scotland game Craig breaks his arm and my chance goes up. Then I'm on the bench in Dublin watching us lose to Ireland and Eric Elwood having a stormer and my chance goes down.

'So I've never taken anything for granted. I don't think anyone does because of the way fortunes fluctuate. Look at my own last season. I was especially delighted that both Stuart and I were picked, because it immediately gave me an opportunity to come away on a tour of eight weeks where the only thing that mattered was what happened here. What happened in January/February/March was totally irrelevant once the Lions choice had been made.'

The fateful moment for Barnes was when he took a boot in the head from one of his own players against Southland, putting him out of the first Test. When he had a final chance to stake his claim for the second Test after an indifferent performance by Andrew against Auckland, the tight forwards in front of him more or less capitulated against Hawke's Bay.

The company you have to keep can be critical. 'I didn't come to New Zealand thinking either of us was No 1 or No 2; I don't think any of us did in any position,' Andrew said. 'At the outset they were no more than two or three you could pencil into the Test side. There is so much rugby to be played in such a short space of time and so many things that can affect form: injuries, how the side you're picked in plays, etc. All I wanted was to do myself justice.'

Which Andrew proudly did in Wellington last Saturday, when he and Dewi Morris put their difficulties behind them to lay on as consummate an exhibition of controlled half-back play as you could wish to see - so consummate, in fact, that Ian McGeechan, the coach, broke his usual habit by singling them out for acclaim.

'No matter how great the occasion, you have to try to make it just another game and not be frightened by it,' Andrew said. 'It was very punishing mentally because after losing the first Test we were faced with no alternative: we had to win. Physically it was very tough, too, because the All Blacks are big men who keep coming at you. The trouble is it could well be even harder in the final Test.'

(Photograph omitted)