Rugby Union: Lions take heed of the All Blacks' approach: McGeechan's Test team have perfected the art of taking on and beating New Zealand in their traditional areas of strength

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AN Australian reporter once called Laurie Mains, the New Zealand coach, 'the man with the Mona Lisa smile'. He might just as well have said the same about Ian McGeechan. After seven weeks in New Zealand, the Lions coach remains an enigma and, with the deciding Test on his mind, that suits him perfectly.

Not wishing to give away too many tricks, McGeechan has constantly avoided specifics about the grand strategy which has taken his team into Saturday's match at Eden Park not simply level with the All Blacks but with the momentum clearly behind them.

All he has said is that the Lions' rugby is different because it has to be, that the Lions have to take on and beat the All Blacks in their traditional areas of strength before they can hope to win a Test series in New Zealand. They have to immerse themselves in a rugby culture entirely different from anything found back home.

It is a measure of the Test team's unshakeable determination that they have got to this climactic point of the tour in such good heart and with such a good chance. The Lions' second string, the midweek mob who have lately succumbed to Hawke's Bay and Waikato, are another story and it is McGeechan's one failure that so many of the lesser members of the party have failed to heed him, or if they have heeded him, have been unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

Maybe it does not matter, not as long as the Lions have a Test team capable of outplaying the All Blacks as thoroughly as they did to square the series in Wellington. There they revealed the McGeechan concept: total rugby in which players are so adaptable that a tight forward can run and handle like a loose forward, and a loose forward can do it like a back.

The New Zealanders have been on this path for years, their midfield backs able to contribute mightily in rucks and mauls if necessary, their forwards fit enough and fast enough to be in close support of their backs whenever a move breaks down, their tight five making as many tackles as their loose trio. It was the Lions' triumph last Saturday that they did these things better than the All Blacks.

To play with such intensity and such unbridled commitment asks questions of players that, in a supposedly amateur sport, they should not really have to answer. It is so physically punishing and so mentally demanding that one has to suggest it will be unsustainable for players in the home countries as long as they have to go about their daily business.

All Blacks have to go to work, too, but as the constant appearances on television of Sean Fitzpatrick, their captain, advertising anything and everything from health insurance to baked beans, show, down here anything goes.

In fact it has been the subject of criticism this week from Fred Allen, a former New Zealand coach who complained that the modern All Black was too pampered. He probably has a point. The New Zealand Rugby Union's launch of the All Black Supporters' Club is nothing more nor less than an attempt to extract big money from corporate backers and put it into the players' pockets.

So much for amateurism, but these not-so-subtle moves are designed to give All Blacks the time and security needed to turn themselves into athletes worthy of international sport. These Lions can do the same, but only because that is their sole purpose in being here. Once they get home the old disadvantage, the outside world, will unavoidably reassert itself.

Still, if they beat New Zealand on Saturday they will know that in the most important aspect - the playing of the game - they are not the All Blacks' inferiors, and there have not been many Lions through the century who have been able to say that.

The McGeechan prospectus was clear from day one, nearly two months' ago: the Lions had in effect to become more All Black than the All Blacks. The fact that they turned out to have an infinitely more dynamic strike-force on the wide outside (and occasionally down the middle) was an occasionally handsome bonus.

This meant many things but perhaps the biggest was that they had to tackle as strongly and lay their bodies on the line just as readily as an All Black. In other words, the main responsibility devolved on the forwards. They - the Test pack, that is - have discharged it magnificently and will do so again on Saturday.

'If you don't compete at the things they are good at, then you are on the back foot immediately,' McGeechan said yesterday. 'It's very different from the environment we play in at home. I'm conscious I've asked players to do things differently here from the way they would be expected or allowed to do at home.'

The majority have responded to the need for unswerving concentration, for adaptability, for - bringing it down to specifics at last - the need to win loose ball after loose ball in a manner they would not even contemplate in domestic rugby. A minority have not.

'The game is moving quickly,' McGeechan said. 'One of our penalties in the second Test was on our fifth or sixth recycled ball. You don't see that at home because players don't think that way. That's the way Australia and New Zealand do it and we have to fit into that environment because if you want to win World Cups these are the people you have to beat, not the home unions.

'The more we can get administrators, coaches, referees and players together, the more chance we have to get it right. The more we have an overall view of the way the game is going, the better chance we have of lifting World Cups.'

It is a nice idea but when McGeechan returns we may be sure that the only thing that will happen is that the four home unions, having been temporarily brought together under the Lions' banner, will go their separate ways. It is the fact of the Lions' life that they come together, go on tour and then break up again.

Now Carwyn James, coach of the '71 side who won a Test series here in New Zealand, wanted the Lions to play regular Tests at home, not least so that they would have a better chance whenever they went away. The idea had great merit but that, alas, is another story.

Comments