Rugby Union: Clarke has blind date with All Blacks: The Lions pack must raise their game for the first Test. Steve Bale reports from Christchurch

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE IMMENSITY of their undertaking finally impacted on the Lions yesterday when the announcement of the team for tomorrow's first Test against New Zealand at Lancaster Park here reminded them that the grimmest, greatest day of their rugby lives was imminent. After all, only the 1971 Lions have had the temerity to win a series here.

It is impossible to exaggerate what this means to the 15 who will start this game - including Ben Clarke, playing in his third back-row position of the tour; Andy Reed, who began last season as a Bath third-teamer; and Martin Bayfield and Will Carling, to the Lions' limitless relief fit for the Test after believing their tours to be over when they were hurt in the Otago debacle last Saturday.

The question shortly to be answered is whether defeat in Dunedin has strengthened or weakened the Lions. If it is hard to accept the unlikely All Blacks contention that it was just what the Lions needed, their own relatively recent experience in France in 1990 demonstrates that this might indeed be the case. Those All Blacks lost two provincial matches but then won both Tests decisively.

In fact even Wayne Shelford's outstanding New Zealand team of 1989 struggled through their club fixtures in Wales before winning the Test in Cardiff by a record margin. So it can be done, but can the Lions do it? That will depend on the usual prosaic fundamentals: a pack who can win the ball and backs who can then use it.

If the tour has shown anything, it is that these Lions have outside backs, players at the peak of their game such as Ieuan Evans and Jeremy Guscott, with a try-scoring capacity greater than anything the All Blacks can put up against them. But what the tour has yet to show is that there are the forwards to go with this, able consistently to give them the means to do the job.

The provincial matches - even those when the Lions have done especially well - have been characterised by a marvellous economy in the taking of limited opportunities. It may be that this will be impossible to sustain, most of all against the All Blacks.

So to turn hope into anticipation requires many more chances to be created, and that in turn requires a more sustained forward effort than anything we have so far seen. As Bayfield boldly put it: 'Our job is to make sure we get the ball for our backs because with it they can run rings round these All Black players.'

The men on whom this responsibility devolves are not quite those who might have been expected at the tour's outset. Medical advice went against the outside-half Stuart Barnes, who has 12 stitches in his head from Tuesday's game against Southland in Invercargill, and the centre Scott Gibbs was never going to make it after bruising an ankle.

As it happens, Clarke was always a reasonable bet for blind-side flanker, not least because even before departure Ian McGeechan, the coach, hinted that he might be considered there. Until halted by a thigh injury, Clarke had already appeared twice on tour in his usual place, No 8, and once to telling effect at open side.

Still, it is a well-deserved selection, however badly it reflects on the two, Mike Teague and Mick Galwey, brought to New Zealand as blind-sides. Clarke may have ousted Dean Richards from the England side last season but here in New Zealand everyone simply assumed Richards would resume his old place - everyone, that is, except Sean Fitzpatrick.

Yesterday the New Zealand captain expressed surprise that Richards had made the team and Robert Jones, the Wales scrum-half, had not. Jones is one of three of the victorious 1989 Lions to miss out, the others being Brian Moore and the player of the series in Australia, Teague. Among nine Englishmen, four Scots, an Irishman and a Welshman, there are eight new Test Lions.

Of these, Clarke and Reed have been internationals for less than a season. Indeed Reed did not win a regular place in his club's first team until October and, as a Cornishman with a Scottish mother, has since found himself catapulted into the Scotland and now the British Isles teams while scarcely pausing for breath.

At the other end of the scale Peter Winterbottom will face the All Blacks as a Lion all of 10 years after he last did so. Fitzpatrick will be winning his 50th cap for New Zealand - an exclusive group made up of Colin Meads, Gary Whetton and John Kirwan - and the fly-half Grant Fox needs five points for 1,000 in All Blacks matches but, even taking Clarke and Reed into account, in terms of experience the Lions are way ahead.

Ultimately this may not avail them. The first Test, when the All Blacks' vulnerability is greatest, is the best of their three chances but nine decades of rugby history are against them. Lions and their predecessors have won only five (and drawn three) of 32 Tests going the whole way back to 1904 and have beaten New Zealand only once in Christchurch (1977). It is now up to them to show that rugby history really is bunk.

NEW ZEALAND: J Timu (Otago); E Clarke (Auckland), F Bunce, W Little (North Harbour), V Tuigamala; G Fox (Auckland), A Strachan (North Harbour); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown, R Brooke (Auckland), I Jones (North Auckland), J Joseph (Otago), Z Brooke, M Jones (Auckland). Replacements: M Cooper (Waikato), J Preston (Wellington), M Allen (Taranaki), G Dowd (North Harbour), M Cooksley (Counties), A Pene (Otago).

BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Scotland, capt); I Evans (Wales), J Guscott, W Carling, R Underwood; R Andrew, D Morris (England); N Popplewell (Ireland), K Milne, P Burnell, A Reed (Scotland), M Bayfield, B Clarke, D Richards, P Winterbottom (England). Replacements: A Clement (Wales), T Underwood (England), R Jones (Wales), J Leonard, B Moore, M Teague (England).

Referee: B Kinsey (Australia).

Scotland defeated the Western Samoan Development XV 33-8 in Apia on Wednesday but the victory came at some cost. Scotland lost the No 8 Carl Hogg with a broken nose and the scrum-half Brian Redpath to a shoulder injury and neither will play in Sunday's Test against Western Samoa. After scoring an early try, Hogg took no further part in the match following a stiff-arm tackle in the 24th minute by Faapaia Fetineiae who was sent off.

Apart from the injuries, Scotland were given few problems by their opponents. However, although their forwards were dominant, Scotland only led 8-5 at the interval. But they quickly increased the lead with a penalty try. Then Hogg's replacement Doddie Weir went over from a lineout close to Western Samoa's line and there were further tries for Andrew Nichol and John Kerr, with Ally Donaldson adding a conversion and a penalty and Rob McNaughton a drop goal.

(Photograph omitted)