Rugby Union: Lions feel force of New Zealand: First taste of tough tests ahead

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The Independent Online
THE LIONS had heard of the Bay of Islands as a temperate, subtropical heaven sometimes known as 'Never Winter' - which meant that the first joke of the British Isles tour was on them because the heavens opened. On their first full day in New Zealand the wind blew at storm-force and it rained and rained and rained.

So instead of the agreeable acclimatisation that had been intended, it was as miserable as Weston in the wet. Perhaps, after all, they should have known: Russell, across the bay from Paihia, used to be called 'the hellhole of the Pacific' when it was a whaling station.

After four separate power cuts and breakfast by candlelight, yesterday's first training session of the tour had to be conducted indoors at a sports centre and the real business could not start until this morning. The England wing Tony Underwood missed the variations on a basketball theme because of an ear infection but the lock Wade Dooley's leg injury has cleared up and the incidence of jet-lag is minimal.

The news is good, then, as the Lions management consider their selection for the first of 13 fixtures, against North Auckland 40 miles south of here in Whangarei on Saturday and the next, against North Harbour in Auckland's Mount Smart Commonwealth Games Stadium on Wednesday week.

Fitness permitting, all 30 players will play in one or the other, but thereafter opportunities to assess different combinations will be strictly limited by the imminence of the first Test in Christchurch on 12 June. The Lions have only six pre-Test matches.

They were given some idea of the strength of the opposition they will face at Lancaster Park by yesterday's two All Blacks trial matches in Rotorua which achieved an impressive standard despite some of the foulest conditions imaginable. By contrast, the facility with which so many players handled a saturated ball would have been unimaginable back home.

Even so, the theory here, propounded again by the former New Zealand coach John Hart on television last night, is that the wetter the weather the better for the Lions with their heavyweight forwards - and the forecast for the two months they are here is storms followed by rain followed by more storms.

For Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach, this is eerily reminiscent of 1977, when he was in New Zealand as a Lions centre and it poured. Not least because of the weather, that touring party became factionalised and depressed and were beaten. Remembering that experience, McGeechan realises this tour could hinge on his man-management as much as his coaching ability.

One thing he knows already is that the Lions will not have to face New Zealand's record try-scorer, John Kirwan, in the first Test. The mighty wing is in Italy playing for Treviso and so will miss the final All Blacks trial on 1 June, thereby forfeiting his Test place in Christchurch but not in Wellington and Auckland. Finding a temporary replacement - probably either Eroni Clarke, of Auckland, or Marc Ellis, of Otago - was a specific purpose of yesterday's trials.

No tour of New Zealand has ever gone the distance without refereeing controversies but the Lions management are steadfastly refusing to enter into debate on the matter, for now anyway. However, the Test referees are not those they originally expected, Sandy MacNeill having retired and been replaced by another Australian, Brian Kinsey, and France having chosen Patrick Robin rather than Joel Dume.

Though Kinsey is recalled without affection by English players for his handling of their Tests in Argentina in 1990, the new appointments are probably an improvement - particularly as Geoff Cooke, the manager of England as well as the Lions, described Dume as 'of course just a nightmare' in a pre-tour interview when Cooke thought Dume would take the second and third Tests.

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