British Isles. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18
WHETHER they were robbed by refereeing decisions is not really the point about the Lions' glorious first- Test failure at Lancaster Park. The evidence of a match they should have won was that they, every bit as much as the All Blacks, have enough improvement left in them to make history by winning the series.
Optimism for the Tests in Wellington in 12 days and Auckland a week later as a result of Saturday's cruelly thrilling events here is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. The game may have been error-ridden and disjointed but international rugby does not come any closer or more compulsive. When they returned to the dressing- room some of the Lions were in tears. No one spoke for half an hour.
They conceded a dubious try after 79 seconds and the inevitable Grant Fox kicked his disputed winning penalty after 79 minutes and 25 seconds. In between these calamitous extremes, for the most part they were the better side. 'The Lions could easily have won,' Laurie Mains, the relieved New Zealand coach, conceded.
The close call came about despite an attack of the jitters which had the Lions inside-backs fumbling, nervous wrecks with the ball in their hands, despite failing to create anything much in the way of clear try chances, and despite the debilitating preceding week during which they had lost one match, their form in another and a further two players from the tour.
So even though it has been widely assumed that the Lions' best chance had to be in the first Test, the prospects are unexpectedly good. Whereas the 1983 Lions had a fair idea that they could not do much better than their 16-12 defeat in Dunedin - and so it proved - this lot are certain they can. After Saturday, they need have no psychological hang-ups.
'If we'd put in an outstanding performance and still lost we might be justified in thinking differently, but we know we can improve,' Geoff Cooke, the Lions manager, said. 'We also know we have to. I would have thought it was the All Blacks who would have more uncertainties. '
Ah, but the All Blacks - in accordance with an ingrained tradition - did win it, however contentiously, and no amount of complaining will alter the plain fact that the success of Cooke's tour is now dependent on his players doing what no Lions predecessors have done by winning two successive Test matches in New Zealand. It would be an awesome accomplishment.
That the Lions are one down is due to a couple of incidents they have already played and replayed in their minds hundreds of times. Gavin Hastings had called for the best start of the tour; instead he got the worst, the New Zealand forwards slamming into the Lions so rapaciously that the defence was already in pieces when Fox hoisted the garryowen that brought Frank Bunce's try.
Ieuan Evans insisted he held tight even when Bunce also grabbed on. 'There was no time when I did not have my hands on the ball,' the Welshman said. In which case, no try. But Brian Kinsey, the referee, was way off the pace and could not possibly have made an informed judgement. He was given the nod by a touch judge, Andrew Cole, who had an even worse view.
Had the Lions conceded another, that would have been that. But instead they stood firm, rallied by the line-out successes of Martin Bayfield and Ben Clarke and the superhuman efforts of Clarke, Richards and Winterbottom in disrupting the All Blacks around the fringes. The tackling of the back row and the anticipation and dexterity of their support play were stupendous.
The majestic Hastings began landing penalty goals and although Fox, who had missed the conversion, did so as well, the Lions never fell more than five points behind. Once Fox's fourth penalty - for a careless neck tackle on John Timu, by Hastings of all people, which in another context might have provoked his dismissal - had pushed the Blacks 17-12 ahead, the Lions took and kept control until Hastings's sixth made it 18-17 to the Lions with nine minutes left.
They were the longest nine minutes in the lives of many more of us than the Lions alone. Dean Richards conceded the decisive penalty after turning Bunce in a tackle and wresting the ball from him despite a forest of All Black arms which might equally well have been penalised.
If it was an offence, no other referee on this tour has picked it up. But Kinsey insisted that Richards should have rolled away, though even the mighty No 8 would have found this difficult with all those black-clad bodies on top of him. As his figures show, Fox seldom misses such opportunities, and downwind 50 yards could have been 30. In this match he passed 1,000 points in an All Black jersey.
'Richards made the tackle on Bunce; immediately bodies went piling in,' Cooke said last night. 'It seemed to me the decision was either a penalty to us or a scrum to us. It seemed inconceivable that the decision would be against us. But there's no point in agonising about it. It's finished.' End of story.
More unfair even than the penalty was that it should have been conceded by a member of the back row. Clarke, who had already played No 8 and open side on this tour, fitted in at blind side as if he had always played there while ranging about the field with the speed of a threequarter. Peter Winterbottom's battered countenance bore witness to unflinching gallantry. The way he and Richards smashed All Blacks forwards into retreat was reminiscent of nothing so much as All Blacks.
Alas for these deserving cases, it was not enough. The things that went wrong, mainly at forward, in the Otago defeat were put right but the thing that had been especially right - the sweet, swift transference and try-scoring of the backs - was not. Combine the two elements and the All Blacks could be beaten yet.
Hence the upbeat post-match atmosphere. 'It's only demoralising if you've played particularly well, because then there's not much to build on,' Cooke said. 'We all believe there's so much left in the team. We know the Blacks are going to get better but they're not stupid: they know that we're going to get better, too.' Which is to say the Lions' hearts may have been broken at Lancaster Park, but not their spirit.
New Zealand: Try Bunce; Penalties Fox 5. British Isles: Penalties Hastings 6.
NEW ZEALAND (Auckland unless stated): J Timu (Otago); E Clarke, F Bunce, W Little (both North Harbour), V Tuigamala; G Fox, A Strachan (North Harbour); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown, R Brooke, I Jones (North Auckland), J Joseph (Otago), Z Brooke, M Jones. Replacement: M Cooper (Waikato) for Little, 80.
BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Scotland, capt); I Evans (Wales), J Guscott, W Carling, R Underwood; R Andrew, D Morris (all England); N Popplewell (Ireland), K Milne, P Burnell, A Reed (all Scotland), M Bayfield, B Clarke, D Richards, P Winterbottom (all England).
Referee: B Kinsey (Australia).
ANDY NICOL, the Scotland scrum- half, is on standby to join the Lions in New Zealand. Robert Jones, who sat on the bench in Saturday's Test despite having a sore throat, was having a blood test in New Plymouth today. Jones has a history of similar ailments, which has left the team doctor anxious to establish the precise nature of his present problem. Walter Little, the All Blacks centre, has a medial ligament strain and is certain to miss the second Test on 26 June in Wellington. He is likely to be replaced by the utility back Matthew Cooper.
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