Rugby Union: Fox steps up as Lions are left to suffer

Click to follow
The Independent Online
New Zealand. . . . . .20

British Isles. . . . .18

IT IS against all the laws of nature that lions should be ensnared by a fox, but not, unfortunately, against the laws of rugby football. It was Grant Fox's penalty in the penultimate minute, his fifth, which finally brought down these gallant Lions. It was a grievous blow, not least because, like the first score two minutes after the kick-off, there was more than a whiff of controversy about it.

Dean Richards, who, along with his back-row comrades Ben Clarke and Peter Winterbottom, had spent the afternoon jealously protecting their own territory and a good bit of it invading the All Blacks' domain with an almost reckless disregard for personal safety, was penalised for not releasing the ball at the ruck. The fact that Richards was not in possession of the ball nor, entombed beneath both packs, able to move a muscle, much less a hand, carried no weight with the Australian referee Brian Kinsey.

From 40 yards out and straight in front of goal, Fox kicked the penalty, and in doing so redeemed himself in the eyes of a nation for his miss in similar circumstances, against Australia last season. It was Fox's 1,010th point for the All Blacks, but as Sean Fitzpatrick, his captain, said afterwards, the last three had mattered most.

The Lions had begun to have their doubts about Kinsey in the second minute when Fox floated a kick towards the Lions' right flank. Ieuan Evans fielded the ball but was taken over his line by Frank Bunce, who also managed to get his hands on the ball. The referee, poorly positioned to make an immediate judgement, but claiming to have received a confirmatory nod from his touch-judge, awarded the try. Evans was adamant that he never relinquished the ball and that it should have been a five-metre scrummage to the All Blacks. Television replays support him.

The muddled refereeing we are seeing at international level is making a mockery of the game. It will be of no consolation to the Lions that, but for two dubious decisions at Lancaster Park yesterday, they, and not the All Blacks, would be in pole position to win the series. Not only did Fox's winning kick wipe out a second half of constructive toil by the Lions' forwards, it gave the All Blacks a head start which their play scarcely deserved. It seems inconceivable that they will again commit as many basic errors as they did in the second half. They were at sixes and sevens in most phases of forward play and their backs were more often to be found at the foot of a ruck than in the threequarter line.

The All Blacks' failure to control the set-piece put them at an overwhelming disadvantage in the second phase where they are traditionally so menacing. Much of this was undoubtedly due to a prodigious display by the Lions' loose forwards. Clarke, who has now played in all three back-row positions on tour, gave a masterly performance on the blind-side flank and was an unmitigated nuisance to the opposition at the back of the line-out. Winterbottom, so ineffectual against Otago a week ago, had a punitive mission yesterday, and returned from the front line with a few more battle honours, including the colours of the All Blacks standard bearer, Michael Jones. Richards rummaged around in the loose with his customary zeal, taking great care to maintain disciplinary control, which made the penalty award against him all the harder to stomach.

Much less impressive was the Lions' scrummaging which, for most of the afternoon, was in retreat. It is now likely that the tourists will experiment in their next match against Taranaki on Wednesday by moving Jason Leonard to the tight head. Even so, the Lions' pack gave an astonishing display in that second half when, for once, it was the All Blacks who fell before their opponents in the loose rather than the other way round.

If the same could not be said of the backs, whose handling and passing techniques too often fell apart in the face of the All Blacks' claustrophobic defensive screen, there were some bright moments.

Twice Rory Underwood was released in the second half but he was thwarted on both occasions by the athleticism rather than the positional awareness of the All Blacks' full-back John Timu. Jeremy Guscott somehow managed to reinvigorate a flagging passing movement with an electrifying dash which deserved more than the penalty award given for obstruction by Michael Jones on Will Carling. It was, though, one of the six penalties converted by Gavin Hastings who is hardly putting a foot wrong. His six goals yesterday equalled the Lions' individual scoring record set in 1980 by the Irish stand-off Tony Ward. Rob Andrew played sensibly at fly-half, kicking accurately down the line and taking every opportunity to involve his threequarters, and Dewi Morris's tackle rate amounted to the work of three men.

But exciting though it was, with the margin between the sides never more than five points, the game was full of the anxieties, stresses and perplexities of modern Test rugby. A total of 21 penalties, 11 of which were converted into points, allowed only fitful progress in the open field where neither side could establish a rhythm. The Lions did well to recover from the shock of Bunce's try with two beautifully struck penalties by Hastings. But Fox's second penalty at the very end of the first half, when Morris was offside at a ruck, and his third - again for offside - within three minutes of the restart, after Olo Brown had charged to within a couple of yards of the Lions line, suggested rising All Black confidence.

In fact, the Lions were becoming increasingly dominant through their forwards. Martin Bayfield, who had been wedged in by a pincer movement at the front of the line-out, found more room for himself in the middle and at the tail, and was impossibly hard to pin down. Hastings kicked three penalties in the second half, the most damaging, it seemed, with just 10 minutes remaining. The All Blacks were penalised for going to ground after the tackle and Hastings sent a majestic kick from close to the touchline smack between the posts.

The Lions had only to keep their heads, maintain their discipline and hope that Kinsey would see things their way. Alas, he did not. But, just as the beaver builds his dam and, when it is washed away, has to start all over again, so the Lions must regroup, rethink their strategies and come back refreshed for the second Test in a fortnight.

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). Replacement: M Cooper (Waikato) for Little, 80 min.

BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Watsonians and Scotland, capt); I Evans (Llanelli and Wales), J Guscott (Bath and England), W Carling (Harlequins and England), R Underwood (Leicester and England); R Andrew (Wasps and England), D Morris (Orrell and England); N Popplewell (Greystones and Ireland), K Milne (Heriot's FP and Scotland), P Burnell (London Scottish and Scotland), M Bayfield (Northampton and England), A Reed (Bath and Scotland), B Clarke (Bath and England), D Richards (Leicester and England), P Winterbottom (Harlequins and England).

Referee: B Kinsey (Australia)

Scores: Bunce (try, 2 min, 5-0); Hastings (pen, 11 min, 5-3); Hastings (pen, 17 min, 5-6); Fox (pen, 21 min, 8-6); Hastings (pen, 36 min, 8-9); Fox (pen, 40 min, 11-9); Fox (pen, 43 min, 14-9); Hastings (pen, 48 min, 14-12); Fox (pen, 52 min,

17-12); Hastings (pen 53 min, 17-15); Hastings (pen, 70 min, 17-18); Fox (pen, 79 min, 20-18).

Lions' wounds, page 29

(Photographs omitted)