'IF ONLY,' Geoff Cooke said, 'the two most useless words in the English language.' Of course, but they have been liberally used as the Lions have struggled their way through three successive Saturday defeats. Auckland, like the first Test against New Zealand, was one that got away.
So in their post-match reflections Cooke, the manager, and Ian McGeechan, the coach, were in effect articulating those useless words rather a lot. If only the Lions had closed down the game when required, particularly after building a solid lead; if only the Lions had held their passes; if only Gavin Hastings had not been injured. If only. Two useless words.
Never mind Auckland's Super 10 defeat by Transvaal, they are the mightiest non-international team in the world; they have not lost to a touring team since the Springboks won at Eden Park in 1981; they have made 59 successful defences of the Ranfurly Shield since 1985. Yet the Lions, judged by the Auckland coach to be a significantly superior side to Transvaal, should have beaten them.
If only. The beneficial effect such a result would have had on morale a week before the second Test is incalculable. As it was, the performance of the Lions steadily subsided after they had taken an 18-11 advantage into half-time. With their captain's departure went the Lions' chance. The management rightly insist it is a collective effort but Hastings's individual contribution is beyond praise.
The problem was not so much the nightmare Will Carling was then asked to endure out of position at full-back, where he occasionally played for Durham University, though that was bad enough in that Carling's evident discomfiture was catching (unlike much of the Lions' handling). It was far more that the Lions suddenly became so ineffective, their passes consistently going astray and their back play cluttered and over-complicated.
Thus, although the Lions made the supposedly awesome Auks look ordinary, they themselves also sunk into ordinariness and after scoring their 18 first-half points added not a single one while their Test nemesis Grant Fox was adding the four penalties that dragged Auckland to their fortuitous winning lead. It was every bit as frustrating as the Christchurch Test had been, yet another example (the ninth time in nine tour matches) of the Lions playing superbly in patches but failing to sustain a reasonable average over 80 minutes.
Cooke and McGeechan know this is not good enough - not in New Zealand, where even the humblest provincial side will come at you all day long if you do not keep them pinned down. 'We are basically a good side,' Cooke insisted, but then came the unavoidable qualification.
'The mark of a great side is one that cuts down its errors, takes its chances and nails games when they are there to be won. At the moment that's where we are slipping up. It's a fine line and we're not very far away and there's no need for doom and gloom.'
So the Lions are not yet a great side but if they won the second and third Tests they could come to be so regarded. 'We have the means and the knowledge,' McGeechan said. Privately the coach has no doubt that his Lions are better than the All Blacks; that they therefore have the means, because the players are good enough, and the knowledge, because they are now so in tune with New Zealand rugby that their mental attitude is as steely as that of the All Blacks themselves.
It has still to be proven that they possess the outstanding Kiwi quality for holding tight to win the close matches, but again at Eden Park there were tantalising glimpses of exceptional talent. First the Lions gained a penalty try when Brandon Jackson dived into a ruck at the Auckland posts, and if David Bishop's generosity in awarding it for what he described as 'a professional foul' was more than the Lions might have expected, the Auckland captain Zinzan Brooke surprisingly agreed with the decision.
He might have felt differently if he lost. As it was, his team went straight from the kick-off for John Kirwan to pick a Lee Stensness grubber-kick off his toes and score an instant retaliatory try when the Lions' concentration should have been at its sharpest and their defences at their most intransigent.
Next, Ieuan Evans demonstrated his brilliant attacking virtuosity by darting inside one man, outside another and through the tackle of a third for his fourth try of the tour, and if the Lions had continued as they were then going they would have won comfortably.
If only. Instead Hastings went off, Auckland won an increasing share of the ball, the Lions played for ever-longer periods in their own territory and Bishop took an increasingly dim view of the way they were keeping Auckland out. And with a dismal inevitability the dead-eyed Fox received enough penalty chances to kill off the Lions again.
Auckland: Try Kirwan; Penalties Fox 6. British Isles: Tries Evans, penalty try; Conversion Hastings; Penalties Hastings, Andrew.
AUCKLAND: S Howarth; J Kirwan, W Sotutu (Marist), L Stensness (University), E Clarke (Suburbs); G Fox, J Hewett (University); C Dowd (Suburbs), S Fitzpatrick (University), O Brown (Ponsonby), R Brooke (Marist), R Fromont (Suburbs), B Jackson (Carlton), Z Brooke (Marist, capt), M Jones (Waitemata). Replacement: C Adams (Carlton) for Howarth, 13.
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 (England), P Burnell (Scotland), M Johnson, M Bayfield (England), R Webster (Wales), B Clarke, P Winterbottom (England). Replacement: W Carling (England) for Hastings, h/t. Temporary substitute: K Milne (Scotland) for Moore, 7-9.
Referee: D Bishop (Te Anau).
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