Rugby Union: Lions' backs to the wall in preparation for a tougher test

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THE Lions may have considered it tough against North Auckland, but the 15 who did not start in Whangarei and now have to confront North Harbour at Mount Smart Stadium tomorrow may well come to view that first match as a cakewalk compared with the second, writes Steve Bale from Auckland.

North Auckland are Second Division; North Harbour are not only First Division but reached the semi- finals of last season's New Zealand Championship - good enough to put them in the Super 10 competition which ended with Transvaal beating Auckland at the weekend.

These stronger Lions will not be fooled by North Harbour's less-than- super Super 10 record, because although they lost to Waikato, Transvaal and New South Wales, they ended up by beating Northern Transvaal. It was the sort of result these Lions would die for.

A second opening as sluggish, uncoordinated and unconvincing as the first will certainly put their tour record in far more serious jeopardy. North Harbour have three of the current All Black backs - Bunce, Little and Strachan - as well as a host of past or present Test challengers.

In this company so early in the tour the Lions are clearly vulnerable. 'It's new players again, playing very good opposition who will not miss the fact that they are new,' Ian McGeechan, the coach, said yesterday after a private training session. 'It was quite obvious from the video of the first game how different the first 20 minutes was from the rest. One of the pleasing aspects was that the players did adapt very quickly, knowing they would be under intense pressure in the first 20 minutes, and we will need the same against North Harbour.'

In fact the Lions, having taken a degree of control against North Auckland, let it slip badly for a long period of the second half and they may be sure that North Harbour will not run out of attacking ideas as North Auckland did when they were battering the Lions line to little effect.

It is the biggest event in the eight years of the host unions' existence since they hived themselves off from Auckland. Their own ground at Takapuna holds 13,000 and was deemed inadequate. However, some of North Harbour's old campaigners, including the former Kiwi captain, Wayne Shelford, would have preferred to retain home advantage and forgo the commercial advantage of moving to the city's 1990 Commonwealth Games facility. As in Whangarei, a 25,000 crowd is expected.

The North Harbour coach, Brad Meurant, indicated that his side would focus initially on the set pieces. 'We will move it around but we won't be trying too much of that airy-fairy stuff we saw from North Auckland,' he said. The Lions may do the same, though McGeechan suggested waiting and seeing how Rob Andrew would play it from stand-off. A set- piece orientation, or even fixation, is what northern-hemisphere sides are criticised for by New Zealanders who believe their rugby to be innately superior. Maybe it is, but it does show if you are English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh you can't really win.

North Harbour: I Calder; R Kapa, F Bunce, W Little, E Rush; J Carter, A Strachan; K Boroevich, G Dowd, R Williams, D Mayhew, B Larsen, A Perelini, R Turner (capt), L Barry.

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

Referee: A Riley (Cambridge, Waikato).

Steve Douglas, of Newcastle Gosforth, has been called up by England to replace scrum-half Matt Dawson, who was injured during the opening match of their tour of Canada.