Rugby Union: Careless Lions feel force of Fox's boot

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The Independent Online
Auckland . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23

British Isles. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18

TO LOSE once to the wily Fox might be deemed to be bad luck. To lose twice and on successive weeks at that, can be construed as carelessness. And a good many of the reasons for this latest reverse, the third Saturday defeat in a row, can be attributed to carelessness.

Lapses in passing, handling, ball retention, concentration and, above all, in the prodigal concession of penalties at crucial times during the match. The six goals which Grant Fox converted were bad enough, but even more critical were the penalties the Lions surrendered in good attacking positions, improvidently scattered throughout the game, but the majority of them in the second half when Auckland scored 12 points without reply.

Fox was once again the chief instrument of torture. His rating as an entertainer may be close to zero, but there is no doubt about his status as a match-winner. Fifteen points against the Lions at Lancaster Park last week and another 18 points yesterday. Six goals, which he never looked like missing, from seven attempts, his only failure being the conversion of John Kirwan's try. He made his mark in so many other ways. His line kicking was without blemish and, sticking rigidly to Auckland's tightly controlled game plan, so were the tactical probes he sent to the far corners of the field.

Fox was at his most effective during the second half when the Lions sources of possession, previously so productive, were drying up. The most wretched part of this performance was that the glowing promise of the first half was so frustratingly unfulfilled in the second. The loss of the Lions captain, Gavin Hastings with a strained hamstring at half-time, did not help, but it was not the reason for the defeat. It was hard to fathom what the reason was, because for the first 40 minutes, the Lions played some of their best rugby of the tour.

They had done this with an unstable scrummage and a line-out which had functioned fitfully, casting some horrid ball Dewi Morris's way. But in the loose the Lions had been admirably positive. Rob Andrew both in attack and, even more impressively in defence, had the bearing and presence of a top-class performer, and Scott Gibbs, whenever he touched the ball, made things happen. He has surely worked his passage into the Test side which is unfortunate for Will Carling who had the unenviable task of replacing Hastings at full-back. It was not the best method of rehabilitation for a player whose confidence is fast ebbing away.

The Lions were therefore well worth their two tries in the first half, even if the first of them was shrouded in mystery. The tourists had driven hard for the Auckland line but had met with stern resistance a yard out. Bodies were everywhere and the ball was trapped. The Lions, hoping for a penalty but expecting a scrum, were as bemused as Auckland when David Bishop the referee awarded a penalty try for Auckland's failure to release the ball. Whether or not the Lions would probably, as the law requires, have scored a try had the ball been released is debatable. It was a brave, if strange decision, and was not the last such made by Bishop.

There was no doubt about the Lions' second try which was as bold as it was beautiful to watch. Guscott and Gibbs carried the ball out of defence and Andrew and Hastings joined in to advance the move up to the Auckland 22. There was still work for Ieuan Evans to do, but with an exquisite swerve inside and a shimmy outside Jason Hewitt, Evans raced in at the corner. It was the Lions at their best. The worst, unfortunately, was still to come.

Like the Lions, Auckland had been forced to rearrange their back division when their full-back Shane Howarth was injured after just 12 minutes. Sotutu, a centre, was moved to full-back and throughout the game looked invitingly vulnerable under the high ball, yet the Lions failed to exploit this obvious weakness in the Auckland defence. They were also infuriatingly reluctant to give Rory Underwood his head against the lighter but ponderous-looking Kirwan who scored one good try in the first half and looked an odds-on certainty to score a second later in the game but was comfortably overhauled from behind by Underwood. It was an eventful afternoon for Kirwan. He had crossed the Lions line for a second time in the first half but had been unable to ground the ball, and had made a try-saving tackle on Evans.

At least two of the four penalties, all converted by Fox, could have gone either way, and another one followed a blatant knock-on by an Aucklander. But the Lions cannot complain. They lacked sharpness, poise and precision when it mattered and, once again, when their opponents were groggy, there was no one to finish them off.

Winterbottom and Clarke did the excavation work as best they could but with so many bodies going to ground it was a thankless task. In the second row Johnson probably did just enough to merit selection for the second Test on Saturday, and Jason Leonard will surely come in at tight head. Just how damaging to morale this defeat has been is hard to gauge. The players are not so much dispirited as disappointed, and Ian McGeechan, phlegmatic soul that he is, was probably as close to anger last night as he is ever likely to get. He believes that the strategy to beat New Zealand sides is in place.

Auckland: S Howarth; J Kirwan, L Stensness, W Sotutu, E Clarke; G Fox, J Hewitt; C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick, O Brown, R Brooke, R Fromont, B Jackson, M Jones, Z Brooke (capt). Replacement: C Adams for Howarth, 12 min.

BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Scotland, capt); I Evans (Wales), S Gibbs (Wales), J Guscott (England), R Underwood (England); R Andrew (England), D Morris (England); N Popplewell (Ireland), B Moore (England), P Burnell (Scotland), M Johnson (England), M Bayfield (England), R Webster (Wales), P Winterbottom (England), B Clarke (England). W Carling (England) for Hastings, 40 min.

Scores: Fox (pen, 1 min, 3-0); Hastings (pen, 4 min, 3-3); Hastings (pen try/con, 24 min, 3-10); Kirwan (try, 26 min, 8-10); Evans (try, 30 min, 8-15); Fox (pen, 38 min, 11-15); Andrew (pen, 40 min, 11-18); Fox (pen, 47 min, 14-18); Fox (pen, 51 min, 17-18); Fox (pen, 61 min, 20-18); Fox (pen, 70 min, 23-18).

(Photograph omitted)