Rugby Union: Barnes leads Lions into the unknown: Relaxation in short supply as tourists prepare for their first match against North Auckland

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The Independent Online
HARD THOUGH they have laboured, there has been a dreamlike quality to the Lions' acclimatising week in the lotus-eating milieu of the Bay of Islands. When they finally get to Whangarei tomorrow for their opening match in New Zealand, they may wish they had allowed reality to intrude for a little longer.

This is not to anticipate the mortification of a defeat by Second Division North Auckland at Okara Park - Gavin Hastings, a non-playing captain on this occasion, yesterday went so far as to say 'I would expect a good victory' without it sounding like a hostage to fortune. Indeed the Lions are as well prepared as they could be having only just got to know each other.

But for all the pounding physical pressure the coaches have sought to bring to training by their contrasting methods - the studied quietude of Ian McGeechan and the acerbic volubility of Dick Best - neither knows, nor in a sense has the foggiest idea, how his four-country mixture will blend.

Which is why Ian Jones, the eminent All Blacks lock who leads North Auckland, gives his side a 50-50 chance. 'The advantage we have in the first game is the advantage the Lions will have in the first Test,' he said. In other words, tomorrow it is the provincial side who will enjoy the benefits of familiarity; in Christchurch on 12 June it will be the British Isles.

Tomorrow brings the moment when the theory of uniting the best of British and Irish rugby becomes practice. All those who hold the Lions dear will hold their breath, even including the phlegmatic McGeechan. 'We are going from the realms of the totally unknown,' he said. 'Having done everything on the training field, you just don't know until you play.'

Yesterday Martin Bayfield failed to complete training for the third day running and was replaced by Damian Cronin, who forms a Scottish second row with Andy Reed and thereby immediately thwarts the management's intention to separate national partnerships.

The same could be said of Wednesday's game against North Harbour, because Bayfield's hamstring injury is not serious enough to keep him out of that and he will pack down in the all-too-familiar company of Wade Dooley. 'It's very frustrating but there was no point in taking any chances at this stage of the tour,' Bayfield said.

As there are only half a dozen games leading up to the first Test, the mixing- and-matching will soon unavoidably cease - and as Barnes pointed out, the longest-running liaison of all, his with Jeremy Guscott, stays intact.

'We recognise that on a short tour like this we have no time to experiment greatly,' Geoff Cooke, the manager, said. 'You have to have an idea of where you're going, and clearly the likely Test side will start to develop within three or four games. It has to.'

So to claim a Test place no one has time to lose and the tension is therefore caused by more than the imminence of the first game. 'It's pretty evident that everyone, especially the forwards, will be fairly uptight,' Barnes said yesterday. 'We need to relax a bit; a lot of people are very nervous. Everyone knows the Test side will be the 15 form players, so every game represents a big individual as well as collective challenge.'

The nervousness does not extend to Barnes. 'I've been around a long time, it's another challenge for me, it's an honour to be captain and I enjoy the pressures that brings. But I'm certainly not apprehensive.' This can be put down in part to the fact that he is the only one with direct knowledge of his opponents.

He played against North Auckland for England as long ago as 1985 but, more usefully, led England B to victory (and scored 19 points) at Okara Park last year. North Auckland were subsequently relegated but have improved sufficiently to have beaten King Country and Taranaki of the First Division in the past 10 days.

'We are aware we can't allow it to become a loose game,' Barnes said. 'It needs to be tight control and structured. If we can do that, there are major opportunities for us to exploit a possible lack of depth in their defensive play.' Tight control? Structure? This does not sound like the familiar Stuart Barnes. But then he has never previously been a Lions captain and, whatever he says, that is a fearful responsibility.

North Auckland: W Johnston; T Going, C Going, M Seymour, D Manako; A Monaghan, R Le Bas; L Davies, D Te Puni, C Barrell, E Jones, I Jones, G Taylor, K Tuipolotu, A Going.

BRITISH ISLES: A Clement (Wales); I Hunter (England), S Hastings (Scotland), J Guscott, R Underwood; S Barnes (all England; capt), R Jones (Wales); J Leonard, B Moore (both England), P Wright, D Cronin, A Reed (all Scotland), M Galwey (Ireland), B Clarke (England), R Webster (Wales).

Referee: L McLachlan (Dunedin).

(Photograph omitted)