British Isles. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .20
TO BE present at grotty old Athletic Park for the Lions' finest hour was both a privilege and a joy. There has been nothing like it, nothing in the chronicle of occasional success punctuating the persistent failure of Lions sides in New Zealand, nothing to match the fantastic performance with which Gavin Hastings's team conquered the All Blacks.
Nothing like it because this was the record Lions win among the paltry total of six that British Isles sides have achieved here in 89 years and 34 matches of trying. The previous best, also in Wellington, was by 13-3 in 1971. These Lions now know, unequivocally, that they have the beating of the Blacks in next Saturday's decider.
They took on and saw off New Zealand up front, came back boldly from a soft try akin to the one that had conceded the first Test, scored a try of genius of their own, out-thought, outmanoeuvred and ultimately outplayed the All Blacks. But for the dubious refereeing decision with which Brian Kinsey gave Grant Fox his winning penalty in Christchurch, the Lions would already have won the series. Unbelievable.
So unbelievable that Laurie Mains, the New Zealand coach, could not quite come to terms with it nor with a defeat of this unwonted magnitude. 'We ran the ball more than the Lions did with a lot more possession. What did they do with all the possession they had,' he asked, incredulously. Answer: they won the match hands down, Laurie.
'I'll settle for not doing a lot with it and scoring 20 points when the All Blacks scored only seven,' Ian McGeechan, Mains's opposite number, retorted. Absolutely right: the Blacks became so frantic when the game was going away from them in the second half that all they did with the ball was run, like headless chickens, straight into the welcoming arms of Lions tacklers.
As a matter of fact the glut of Lions possession to which Mains referred was more like a decent share, so the coach's implied criticism was way off the mark on that count as well. What actually happened was that the Lions, in particular Martin Johnson and Martin Bayfield, controlled the line- out so effectively in the first half that the New Zealand forwards established neither superiority nor any discernible pattern.
Things changed somewhat when Mark Cooksley was taken off at half- time and replaced by Ian Jones and, not withstanding the Mains analysis, the line-outs ended more or less even. So did the penalties, and in the loose the All Blacks astonishingly won more than 50 rucks and mauls, twice as many as the Lions. They also got caught in rucks and mauls so often that they turned over the scrummage put-in six times.
So to pretend that the Blacks were making more positive use of limited possession than the Lions were of plenty is arrant nonsense and but for the calamity of Eroni Clarke's early try the disparity would have been even more obvious. The Lions did not permit Grant Fox a single penalty kick at goal in the first half; in the second he had two chances and missed them both.
This alone was a formidable accomplishment, remembering Fox's contributions to the 20-18 win in the Test in Christchurch a fortnight ago and Auckland's by 23-18 a week later. Apart from a game against a world team last year when he went on as a replacement, Fox had not failed to land a penalty since the first of his 43 Tests, when Robbie Deans was doing New Zealand's kicking.
This time all he had to add to his 588 Test points were two for an easy conversion. Down came the bomb he had launched at Gavin Hastings and when the Lions captain spilled it Clarke was present to drop on the loose ball. Thank goodness Hastings is one of those rare players who never lets a blunder affect his subsequent performance.
He simply got on with it and, as we now know, it was a miracle of sorts that he was able to take the field in the first place. The tour doctor, James Robson, has worked wonders with a number of Lions but never was it so important for one of them to start a match as it was for Hastings, who was still short of full fitness because of the hamstring injury he suffered against Auckland.
During the three days before the Test Anthony Clement had been told to prepare himself as if he were playing. In the end Hastings not only led out the Lions but, however gingerly, lasted the full course. After missing his first two penalties he kicked the next two and Rob Andrew put the Lions in front with a drop goal with almost the last kick of the first half.
In between Fox's misses Hastings put over a third penalty. On the hour the Lions made the game safe with their spectacular try after withstanding a period of ferocious pressure by getting the nudge on an All Black scrum in a desperate defensive position. 'In its way,' Brian Moore, the hooker, said, 'it was a more important moment than Rory's try.'
At the same time you could go through a lifetime of Lions tours and not see a try more glorious than Rory Underwood's. Things were already bad enough for the New Zealand captain, Sean Fitzpatrick, who had conceded more penalties than he would care to contemplate before he lost the ball as the All Blacks were trying to push into Lions territory.
Worse was to follow. Seizing the opportunity with vision and superb execution, Dewi Morris and Jeremy Guscott combined in a trice to put Underwood in a blaze of speed past the floundering John Kirwan and then away from John Timu. So delirious was the moment that even the stoical McGeechan could not forbear to punch the air.
I regret to report that there was even a temporary breakdown of professionalism in the press box but, put in the context of failed Lions tours of New Zealand, I submit it was understandable. Every single one of the 11 Englishmen, two Welshmen, one Scot and one Irishman was a hero; each one justified his selection so
completely that the team is bound to be reselected en bloc for the Auckland Test.
'It is one of the highest achievements of my career - and I'm sure everyone feels like that,' Hastings said. How about the highest? But even though this was special, the achievement if his side repeat the performance next Saturday will be higher still. No Lions have ever come from behind to beat the All Blacks, so a place in rugby history beckons.
New Zealand: Try Clarke; Conversion Fox. British Isles: Try R Underwood; Penalties Hastings 4; Drop goal Andrew.
NEW ZEALAND: J Timu (Otago); J Kirwan (Auckland), F Bunce (North Harbour), E Clarke, V Tuigamala; G Fox (Auckland), J Preston (Wellington); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown, R Brooke (Auckland), M Cooksley (Counties), J Joseph (Otago), Z Brooke, M Jones (Auckland). Replacement: I Jones (North Auckland) for Cooksley, h/t.
BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Scotland, capt); I Evans (Wales), J Guscott (England), S Gibbs (Wales), R Underwood; R Andrew, D Morris (England); N Popplewell (Ireland), B Moore, J Leonard (England), M Johnson, M Bayfield, B Clarke, D Richards, P Winterbottom (England). Temporary substitute: M Teague (England) for Winterbottom, 68-70.
Referee: P Robin (France).
----------------------------------------------------------------- LIONS VICTORIES IN NEW ZEALAND ----------------------------------------------------------------- 6-3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Dunedin, 1930 9-6 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Auckland, 1959 9-3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Dunedin, 1971 13-3 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Wellington, 1971 13-9 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Christchurch, 1977 20-7 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Wellington, 1993 -----------------------------------------------------------------
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