Rugby Union: Feared Fox revitalised by All Black rejection: New Zealand's prolific points kicker has undergone a startling conversion in the past year. Steve Bale reports from Christchurch

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The Independent Online
HOWEVER loud the new insistence in New Zealand on aesthetically pleasing, try-scoring rugby, the most potent weapon in the All Blacks' armoury is far more prosaic: the trusty right foot of their prolific outside-half. If the British Isles are to lose the Test series which begins at Lancaster Park on Saturday, their likely nemesis is Grant Fox.

The record shows that he is likely to kick the Lions to death. His 573 points in 41 Tests are nearly three times the old New Zealand record of Don Clarke, a legendary kicker who scored at less than half Fox's rate. Fox still stands behind Michael Lynagh and Hugo Porta in the international list, but his average of 14 points a Test is unrivalled. In addition, he has amassed 995 points in all his All Black matches and this season has passed 2,500 for Auckland.

Yet the man who will punish the Lions' slightest indiscretion seemed washed up as a Test player a year ago, literally hanging on by the seat of his pants (on the bench), out of form and out of sorts after the 1991 World Cup and apparently incapable of fitting into the more fluid and ambitious type of rugby wanted by the new coach, Laurie Mains.

In the event a host of critics were proved wrong. Fox had never been one to accept criticism, let alone an indignity such as being relegated to reserve, and when the All Blacks came home with only third place in the World Cup he very nearly retired. But now even he admits that he is a better man as well as better player for being made to analyse himself and his motivation.

'I was suffering from post-World Cup depression and it was only when our summer came and I was able to get away from the rugby environment that the thought processes started to say I was missing it,' he said. 'Things hadn't gone as well as I'd hoped and I suffered a lot of personal criticism. In the end I wasn't going to let the criticism drive me away from the game I love so much.'

Fox had gone into the World Cup carrying a pelvic injury that eventually made him miss the play-off against Scotland and it was not until the All Blacks were in Australia last July - a year after the injury first occurred on tour in Argentina - that it finally healed.

In the meantime, he was dropped: a stunning rebuff to a player who had been so critical to All Black success ever since the first World Cup in 1987. The selectors did not expect Fox to take their decision well but, as it turned out, his response was so positive and the alternative outside-half, Walter Little, so disappointing that after replacement duties in four Tests he returned - one might say in triumph - for the Bledisloe Cup series against Australia.

'I have to say that with hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened to me. At the time I didn't like it but it made me reassess and helped remotivate me. I had probably become a little too comfortable. I don't think complacent is the word that describes me but perhaps familiarity is a good word. I had become too familiar with the whole thing. The selectors told me what they wanted me to do and sitting on the sidelines I was able to appreciate what they were talking about.

'As an adjunct to that, it took until last July for the injury to let go. I still had it at the start of our season and finally, when we were in Melbourne at the beginning of our Australian tour, I suddenly realised there was no pain there. I'd been told it would take 12 months to clear up, and that was 12 months almost to the day. I still think the problem was more psychological than physical but being fit again obviously made a big difference.'

So Fox, 31 next Wednesday, has changed, for good. The man who once said he had never, ever played a game of rugby for fun is now treating it as serious enjoyment. Had it not so transpired, he would not now be preparing to face the Lions - one of the few achievements his protracted career has not yet included, though he did face the 1983 Lions for Auckland.

Just like the collective All Blacks image, which was gloomy and introspective at the time of the World Cup, Fox's has lightened in keeping with the times. As managing director of a sports marketing company, he needs a user-friendly profile and nowadays you could not wish to meet a more affable, chirpy character.

But it was not ever thus. 'It had been building up for a long time with the All Blacks and when we didn't succeed in the World Cup the fall-out was amazing. We were aware there was criticism that we were inaccessible and arrogant but when you are in a tightly-knit group you sometimes don't recognise it. There were parts of the criticism that were extremely valid, some I still won't accept.

'Part of it is a PR exercise. The Australians showed in the World Cup with their PR machine just what could be achieved. The All Blacks are willing learners and we did learn from that experience. Things had to change and the guys have willingly made the change. We have a much more comfortable environment.'

When Gary Whetton was captain, Fox was one of the cabal who effectively ran the All Blacks, making them as inaccessible as Fox admits and, if not arrogant, then at least aloof. But after coming through his personal crisis, he has become not only accessible but also an intelligent and articulate All Black elder statesman. In other words, the conversion (he has booted 112 for New Zealand) is complete.

(Photograph omitted)

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