Rugby Union: Carling dropped, Gibbs promoted

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The Independent Online
UNDER the pressure of a Lions tour he has not exactly cracked but Will Carling's untouchability has been destroyed by the claims of the rival centres. Scott Hastings may have gone but Scott Gibbs has usurped the England captain's place against Auckland tomorrow, writes Steve Bale from Auckland.

This is one of four changes from the side beaten 20-18 in the first Test last Saturday and, though the management would never be so rash as to admit that this is a revised prospective Test choice, it is evident that anyone who performs well at Eden Park is bound to play in Wellington.

So Brian Moore for Kenny Milne at hooker, the continuation of the Jason Leonard tight- head experiment at Paul Burnell's expense and Martin Johnson at lock for Andy Reed are as significant as Gibbs's inclusion. There are now 11 Englishmen in the de facto first XV with two Welshmen and one each from Scotland and Ireland.

The party line is to play it down. In fact the manager, Geoff Cooke, made more of the fact that most of the Test team was intact than of the changes. 'We are looking at another couple of combinations so that we are clear about our options before we make our decision. This is not the Test team.'

It would, however, be inviting defeat to go in against Auckland with anything less than your best. Every one of Gibbs, Moore, Johnson and the out-of-position Leonard gave himself that elevated status with a big game in Wednesday's romp against Taranaki. Gibbs has been one of the revelations of the tour and could well have appeared in the Christchurch Test had he been fit. His star has waned in the Welsh team since a bright introduction in 1991 and his selection for the Lions was never certain.

Immediately before coming away he was under a cloud because of a court case involving drink-driving and taking and driving away a taxi. On the field, his play became one-dimensional in a struggling international side, confined mostly to head-down-and-charge in attack and strong tackling.

Evidently, this was an illusion. He has lost none of his defensive or offensive power but now, given confidence by being surrounded by the highest calibre players, he has rediscovered elegant passing and elusive running skills. All this while Carling, without playing badly, has failed to find the touch that has made him such a fine centre.

'This is the first time I have ever been omitted from a match I desperately wanted to play in,' Carling said. 'It's a new experience and my natural reaction is to be very disappointed. The tour has not gone exactly as I would have liked, but you make your own luck. It is a setback for me, but I am only a player on this tour and not a special case. Maybe it will help me see things from the other side of the fence.'

What makes it more hurtful is that Gibbs, the junior of the Lions at 22, is an outside centre by instinct and preference - which in turn goes to show how a willingness to adapt for the greater good can bring reward. Ben Clarke, who has played in all three back-row positions on this tour, provides another example.

Clarke has been picked in his Test place, blind side, tomorrow but will probably play in his England position, No 8, because Dean Richards has a calf injury. In that event, Richard Webster would come in at blind side though, as Cooke was at pains to stress last night, there are so few scrums in matches these days that the whole idea of blind and open flankers is obsolete.

Tomorrow's result is less important than the performance of the individuals and combinations, but that is to underestimate the huge effect on confidence of beating Auckland. 'They are probably the best non-international side in the world,' Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach, said.

The Auks have not lost to a touring side since the 1981 Springboks, their subsequent victims includes the 1981 Lions, and their Ranfurly Shield record now runs to 59 defences, 34 more than the previous best. Tomorrow they would have done without Michael Jones, the long-standing New Zealand Test flanker if Mark Carter had been fit, and John Kirwan plays only because Va'aiga Tuigamala has a leg injury.

Kirwan, who has shed nearly two stone, arrived home from Italy too late for consideration for the first Test but his performance will be studied with interest by the All Blacks selectors. When they announce their team on Sunday, there is every chance that New Zealand's record try- scorer will be back.

Auckland: S Howarth; J Kirwan, W Otutu, L Stensness, E Clarke; G Fox, J Hewett; C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick, O Brown, R Brooke, R Fromont, B Jackson, Z Brooke (capt), M Jones.

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

Referee: D Bishop (Te Anau).

(Photograph omitted)

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