Rugby Union: Lions' trip shows there is still much to learn: Chris Rea sums up the tour to New Zealand and underlines the lessons given by the All Blacks

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The Independent Online
GEOFF COOKE, like most of his predecessors, believes that British rugby has much to learn from the All Blacks. He is quite right. But who was in New Zealand to learn from them? Apart from the Lions' management, Tony Russ from Leicester and Jamie Salmon from Harlequins, not one other senior coach. Dick Best, who submitted dutifully to the subordinate's role as Ian McGeechan's assistant, was the only one of the four national coaches to witness at first hand the most formidable power in world rugby.

An All Blacks training session alone is worth coming across the world to see. It is a cabaret act of speed and sinew which attracts more spectators than most First Division grounds in England.

There was more to learn from this tour than usual. One of the major lessons was how well the New Zealanders have adapted to the new laws despite their imperfections. The Maoris, Otago, Waikato, Canterbury, for the first 20 minutes, and the All Blacks in the third Test, bore testament to the diversity of their skills and to the positive approach taken by them. It should also have silenced the malcontents in this country who have consistently denounced the laws as unworkable.

Even teams from the lower ranks like Marlborough and Nelson Bay played rugby of a quality which few top sides in this country could match. Is all that not worth the trip? Apparently not. Instead we remain cocooned in our ivory towers, seemingly oblivious to the fact that in the last 10 matches between the All Blacks and the Lions, the Lions have won just two. Furthermore, we have the unmitigated gall to criticise the attitude of a country determined to keep the game in the forefront as a major sport. It is not always an easy or an equal struggle, but through their sheer professionalism both off and, it has to be said, on the field, they are just about managing to repel the perfidious forces from outside.

On the day after the All Blacks had secured victory in the series, there was a vigorously promoted and impressively persuasive television campaign aimed at attracting support for the All Blacks Club from which, it is said, the players could earn up to pounds 40,000 a year. Something similar in this country would not be allowed and yet when it came to raising money for the players' kitty, it was the Lions, not the All Blacks, who drove the harder bargain. The players are not to blame, but in the present confused state of the game, who can wonder that they have spurned the spiritual rewards of virtue for the material benefits of shamateurism? It is precisely because they cannot always legitimately extract the full shilling for their endeavours that they resort to the underworld of whispered negotiations and shady deals. It is the smug hypocrisy of those who have eyes but will not see which is the grubbiest aspect of this whole sordid business.

The tour itself was saved by the Lions' performance in the second Test, which must rank as one of the most disciplined and controlled displays in their history. The Test team was a good one, infinitely superior to those of 1983 and 1977, but the disparity between the first and second XVs was embarrassing and, latterly, shameful. There were players who let themselves down and, more important, let the side down. Nor can the selectors be absolved from blame. If, as I suspect, Ian McGeechan got the Test side he wanted, he must have compromised on a number of other selections. But McGeechan, although he might have recognised the potential of Ben Clarke as a blindside flanker before the tour, cannot have foreseen the early departure of Wade Dooley or the possibility of Jason Leonard as a tight head. Yet the three changes were crucial to the Lions' success in Wellington.

Totally absorbed in his coaching, and given free rein under Cooke's enlightened management, McGeechan had the right tactics which, ultimately, broke down under the weight of All Blacks' pressure at Eden Park. It was the Lions, not the All Blacks, who began by keeping the ball in play as often as they were allowed. McGeechan knew that Brian Kinsey, the referee in the first Test, would ignore crooked feeds at the scrummage and, much more crucial, squint throws to the line- out. It was the Lions, not the All Blacks, who went for quick ball from the rucks and mauls in the first two Tests. It was the Lions, not the All Blacks, who went into the Wellington Test knowing exactly what the game plan was from every position on the field. McGeechan gave his players the blueprint for success and, at Athletic Park, they executed it to perfection.

But the best coaches are those who arrive at the results of their planning without being shackled by their plans, and it must have been depressing for McGeechan that there was so little spontaneity in the Lions' back play. The ruthlessness of Rory Underwood's try in Wellington and the vision of Dewi Morris and Jeremy Guscott in the creation of it, were fleeting joys. Those who believed that the Lions' backs were to be used as the strike force were deeply disappointed.

If the Lions had much to learn from the All Blacks, the reverse, to a limited degree, was also true, and by the third Test it was the All Blacks who were playing the Lions' game, only they were doing it at a faster pace, with greater accuracy and more skilfully.

Fundamental skills in New Zealand are borne as much as anything else from the basic instinct to survive. A badly directed pass, a fumble in midfield, can mean annihilation. Players in this country, and backs in particular, seldom have to operate in such tightly confined spaces or under the threat of such physical intimidation. As a result they become careless and complacent and, for all their natural ability, the Lions' back division was distressingly fallible under pressure. In Christchurch, especially, chances crucial to the outcome of the Test series went begging. More than anything else, McGeechan will reflect on those missed chances and the fact that, for the second time in four years, he has helped mould a formidable England pack.