Rugby Union: Leonard set loose on the tight side

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The Independent Online
WHEN push came to shove - appropriate phraseology in this context - the Lions found Peter Wright wanting as a tight-head prop and have switched Jason Leonard from loose- head for tomorrow's game against Taranaki. The selection is an embarrassing recognition of Wright's inadequacy.

Paul Burnell, the Test tight-head, has scarcely exerted great authority either, so if Leonard can succeed in reacquainting himself with his schoolboy position there is the clear prospect of preferment for the second Test on Saturday week. Whatever happens, the Lions could do with a revitalising performance from their second string after losing to New Zealand in Christchurch on Saturday.

Wright will revert to his Scotland, though not his club, position on the loose-head, where the ride may be no more comfortable as he will be packing down against a recent All Blacks trialist, Gordon Slater. Leonard faces the Taranaki captain Mark 'Bull' Allen, a current All Blacks reserve who, despite his sobriquet, is not renowned for bovine scrummaging.

Leonard does not expect it to be easy. For one thing, it is six years since he made the permanent switch to loose-head as a Barking Colt. For another, he expects the Taranaki pack to target him because of his inexperience. Leonard, England's loose-head since 1990, has had no more than half- a-dozen senior games in tomorrow's position, most recently the second half of the England v Italy World Cup match nearly two years ago.

'I prefer loose-head and see myself as a loose-head but I'll play wherever I'm asked,' said Leonard, who missed out to Nick Popplewell in the Test. Back in London, Probyn could be excused for spitting blood at his omission in favour of two patently lesser forwards.

As for Wright, the selection in effect acknowledges that the rugby he has encountered in New Zealand has been more than he is ready or able to cope with. The Lions scrum has consistently slewed back on the tight- head side whenever Wright has played.

'I will allow you to speculate to your heart's content,' the Lions manager, Geoff Cooke, said archly when asked if he was totally happy with his tight-head props. But he did acknowledge the difficulties. 'We're looking for more stability in our scrummaging. We haven't been looking wholly comfortable there.'

The midweek side, led by Stuart Barnes, includes Scott Gibbs and Robert Jones, both of whom completed a full training session in gales, rain and hail yesterday despite injury and illness. Jones was on the bench for the Test despite the recurrence of an old malady which gives him a very sore throat.

Gibbs's appearance at centre depends on there being no adverse reaction from his bruised ankle, while Jones felt fully recovered from an infection which had lingered long enough for the management to call Andy Nicol as a stand-by from the Scotland squad before they left for home from Western Samoa.

Nicol arrived in New Plymouth last night but the result of a blood test on Jones was negative and, provided the Welsh scrum-half comes through tomorrow's match, Nicol will be on his way at the weekend. 'I've had it many times before,' Jones said. 'There have been occasions when I've played on but normally it takes about four days to recover.'

An earlier blood test, which the management had kept quiet, had been less encouraging but James Robson, the Lions doctor, said last night: 'All abnormal results have been returned to normal. He was distinctly yellow- coloured on Saturday but is normal now. On Thursday and Friday he had swollen glands which suggested acute tonsilitis and a few other things.'

Jones is one of those pushing for a Test place after the Lions' 20-18 defeat, though after so near a miss the vacancies are few. There is a full slate of 15 changes to face Taranaki, who were promoted into the NZ First Division last season at the expense of the Lions' first tour opponents, North Auckland.

The latest arrivals, Vincent Cunningham and Martin Johnson, will make their first appearances here, with Johnson having a big chance of ousting Andy Reed if he goes well enough to be given another run against the awesome Auks, the Ranfurly Shield holders Auckland, on Saturday.

Taranaki: K Crowley; D Murfitt, K Mahon, K Eynon, A Martin; J Cameron, W Dombroski; M Allen (capt), S McDonald, G Slater, B O'Sullivan, J Roache, A Slater, N Hill, F Mahoni.

BRITISH ISLES: A Clement (Wales); R Wallace (Ireland), S Gibbs (Wales), V Cunningham (Ireland), T Underwood; S Barnes (England, capt), R Jones (Wales); P Wright (Scotland), B Moore, J Leonard, M Johnson (England), D Cronin (Scotland), M Teague (England), M Galwey (Ireland), R Webster (Wales). Replacements: W Carling, R Andrew, D Morris (England), P Burnell, K Milne (Scotland), B Clarke (England).

Referee: S Walsh (Wellington).