Rugby Union: Lions battered, bruised and beaten but still full of life: British Isles ultimately prove unable to match the All Blacks' intensity of purpose. Steve Bale sums up the tour

Click to follow
THE LIONS of '93 trekked half-way round the world and ended up exactly where they started, knowing that they could beat the All Blacks but that to do it two weeks running was more than the flesh and blood of British Isles rugby players could stand. With the shining exception of 1971, it was ever thus.

So was their long, long journey really necessary? Yes, absolutely yes, even after losing the third Test 30-13 and with it the series, if only to show the rugby world and the doubters who would talk the Lions into oblivion that the concept of four into one is valid, that a Lions tour is bigger beyond measure than anything that comes out of the individual home countries, that in its way it is as good and as big as a World Cup.

'I hope the Lions never die,' their captain, Gavin Hastings, said. To which the entire New Zealand Rugby Football Union answered a loud amen. Whereas, to take the most recent example, the Ireland tour here last year lost nearly pounds 150,000, the Lions will have put millions into the NZRFU's coffers. The public interest generated by the Lions has been beyond price.

Small wonder they are such popular visitors - as they will be again in South Africa in 1997 - whatever the quality of their rugby. And this was where these Lions were ultimately a let-down. What began in high hope ended in deep disappointment.

In winning those early games with the occasional flourish of a breathtaking try, they flattered to deceive. Because they started the tour by spasmodically putting together parts of their game, the expectation grew that as time went by they would put them all together at the same time.

It did not happen. The intermittent brilliance was not sustained but in every game the Lions lost right up to the final, debilitating week, they were still in charge for long enough periods to suggest that they ought to have won them all.

This applied to the first Test, lost to Grant Fox's last-ditch penalty, to Otago, Auckland and Hawke's Bay. Now if only their defeats had been saved for later - for the Waikato game and the final Test - these Lions would have been up there among the greatest. But then as Geoff Cooke, the tour manager, famously said: 'If only, the two most useless words in the English language.'

That they are not up there is down not simply to the 2-1 loss of the series and the thoroughly mediocre final record of seven wins and six defeats but also to the way the midweek side, who should have been exerting constant pressure on the Test incumbents, collapsed against Hawke's Bay and then capitulated against Waikato.

These were embarrassing and deeply disturbing occasions which spoke graphically of the difference in attitude between New Zealand players and their counterparts from the home countries. It seems an age ago that the management were congratulating themselves on the competition for Test places.

It is, to take the most obvious instance, a mystery of this tour that the Scotland front five so badly failed to reproduce their decent Five Nations form. Peter Wright did not appear to know what had hit him; Damian Cronin and Andy Reed eventually had no appetite for the intensely physical rugby which confronted them in game after game.

In New Zealand of all places you cannot afford to carry any passengers, especially not on a tour of this cruel duration and magnitude. 'Our players are used to shorter tours with their own countries, so the problem was partly when we got into the six-to- eight-week period,' Ian McGeechan, the coach of the Lions and of those self-same Scots last season, said.

'This was the first time we've had a 13-match tour of New Zealand, so there were new ground rules. We had those players under intense pressure on the training field because I've been here six times and I know what it's like. But mentally some of them have not had to come to terms with that before and in addition they have to put in an extra two or three weeks.'

Whether this is an explanation or an excuse, the only retort is that it seldom bothers the All Blacks, who tend to take problems in their stride. We can be certain they will not moan that their autumn tour to England and Scotland is of 13 matches' duration. They will just get on with it.

But then the opposition they will face will be nothing like as consistently unyielding - mentally and physically - as the Lions have encountered everywhere they have been in New Zealand. In fact every member of the team who played in the second and third Tests responded superbly and in winning in Wellington showed that at least they did not have the inferiority complex that has historically bedevilled home-union players against New Zealand.

Ultimately it did them no good collectively because they lost. But individually the Lions had some players of rare talent and others whose valour in the toughest rugby environment they will ever know was unshakeable. The brilliant try-scoring of Ieuan Evans and Rory Underwood may linger longest in the memory but perhaps it was the excellence of the forward play in the second Test that actually had most significance.

Seven of those Lions forwards were Englishmen and the thought of England now building their pack around young bucks of the calibre of Leonard, Johnson, Bayfield and especially the outstanding Ben Clarke is - or should be - thoroughly alarming to the Welsh, Scots and Irish.

In that sense the gibe by the Wales coach, Alan Davies, that the Lions were being used as an England development squad was absolutely accurate, though only because nearly every one of the England players showed himself worthy to be here. In all, 12 of them played in the Tests, and even Will Carling responded generously and courageously to being dropped.

That they still lost condemns the tour as a failure, however much McGeechan may beg to differ. 'It's not as cut and dried as that,' he insisted. 'If we'd have won the series it would have been a big success.' Which leaves us with those two useless words: if only.

Nick Farr-Jones, the former Australian rugby union captain, has not ruled out the possibility of coming out of retirement for the Test against New Zealand in two weeks or the forthcoming series against South Africa. The Australian coach Bob Dwyer is to meet Farr-Jones to discuss a possible return.

Calls for Farr-Jones' return were prompted on Sunday when the current scrum-half Peter Slattery broke two ribs in Australia's 52-14 victory over Tonga in Brisbane, ruling him out for up to six weeks.

'I don't plan to return,' Farr-Jones said yesterday. 'But if Bob (Dwyer) phones up and wants a chat about it, I will have a chat to him.'

Farr-Jones, 31, retired from international rugby after touring South Africa in August last year, but has been playing for the club side Sydney University this season. Asked if Farr- Jones would be asked to play against both New Zealand and South Africa, Dwyer said: 'If he's available for one, he'll be available for the other.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- FULL RECORD OF BRITISH ISLES TOUR ----------------------------------------------------------------- BRITISH ISLES IN NEW ZEALAND: P13 W7 L6 F314 (33 Tries, 19 Cons, 33 Pens, 4 Drops) A285 (31 Tries, 17 Cons, 30 Pens, 2 Drops). TOUR RECORD: 22 May v North Auckland (Whangarei) W 30-17; 26 May v North Harbour (Auckland) W 29-13; 29 May v NZ Maoris (Wellington) W 24-20; 2 June v Canterbury (Christchurch) W 28-10; 5 June v Otago (Dunedin) L 24-37; 8 June v Southland (Invercargill) W 34-16; 12 June v NEW ZEALAND (Christchurch) L 18-20; 16 June v Taranaki (New Plymouth) W 49-25; 19 June v Auckland (Auckland) L 19-23; 22 June v Hawke's Bay (Napier) 17-29; 26 June v NEW ZEALAND (Wellington) W 20-7; 29 June v Waikato (Hamilton) L 10-38; 3 July v NEW ZEALAND (Auckland) L 13-30. TRIES: 4 I Evans; 3 R Underwood; 2 R Andrew, A Clement, V Cunningham, S Gibbs, J Guscott, T Underwood, R Webster, penalty tries; 1 W Carling, D Cronin, M Galwey, G Hastings, S Hastings, R Jones, A Reed, D Richards, M Teague, R Wallace. POINTS: 101 G Hastings (1 Try, 12 Cons, 24 Pens); 87 S Barnes (12 Cons, 21 Pens). APPEARANCES (including as replacement or temporary substitute in parentheses): 9 G Hastings (1), J Guscott (2); 8 S Barnes (2), M Bayfield, B Clarke (1), M Galwey (1), J Leonard (1), K Milne (2), D Morris (1), M Teague (1); 7 R Andrew, P Burnell (1), A Clement (1), W Carling (1), I Evans, S Gibbs, B Moore, N Popplewell, R Underwood, P Winterbottom, R Webster (1); 6 D Cronin, R Jones, D Richards, A Reed, P Wright, T Underwood; 5 R Wallace; 4 M Johnson; 3 W Dooley, V Cunningham; 1 I Hunter, A Nicol (1). -----------------------------------------------------------------