Rugby Union: Lomu primed to fight for place

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The Independent Online
New Zealand's rugby players used up so much emotional energy last summer in scaling the one great sporting peak left for them to conquer - a series victory in South Africa - that their arrival in London yesterday should have been a gentle, low-key affair. Some hope.

Sean Fitzpatrick, the captain, was characteristically single-minded as he summed up his party's ambitions. "It's been a long season and a very exciting one for all of us," said the record-breaking Auckland hooker. "But we haven't come all this way to let ourselves down in the last two games of the year, that's for sure."

By way of underlining that these All Blacks, thinly disguised as the New Zealand Barbarians, intend to avenge their 1993 Twickenham defeat when they meet England on Saturday week, the management made it clear that Jonah Lomu would have to fight for his place.

According to John Hart, the All Black coach who is also in charge of the Barbarians party, Lomu would not rate a place in the full New Zealand Test side at present. Glen Osborne, who is on this tour, and Jeff Wilson, at home recharging his batteries, are the main men and, just to complicate matters, many rugby watchers back home believe that Lomu has now been surpassed by the Fijian Joeli Vidiri, who qualifies as a Kiwi in 1998.

"If anyone had told me back in June that we would win a series on Springbok soil without Jonah, I'd have laughed in their face," admitted Hart. "But Jonah's knee and shoulder problems opened the door for Glen and he turned in some fantastic performances when they were needed. I think Jonah is a better person for his setbacks, though, and I expect him to come back stronger than ever."

Lomu himself is desperate to play at Twickenham. "Of course I want to play," he said "I've set myself the goal of winning back my Test place and when you want something so badly, you'll do almost anything to get it."

If all that was less than reassuring from the English point of view, Hart was making no excuses. "How we see the game at Twickenham and how England see it may be two different things. From our perspective, it is not a Test match but a game to be played in the Barbarian tradition; quite honestly, we've had a hard season and are in no position to play a one- off Test at this stage. But in saying that, we could not contemplate facing England with a team completely lacking in experience."

With fledgling superstars such as Vidiri and the two outstanding Auckland talents, the outside-half Carlos Spencer and wing-forward Andrew Blowers, also on the trip, England will know they have been in a Test even if the tourists beg to differ.

An ankle injury has forced the captain and scrum-half, Niall Hogan, out of the Ireland team for Saturday's Test against Australia at Lansdowne Road.

AUSTRALIA (v Ireland at Lansdowne Road on Saturday): M Burke; J Little, D Herbert, T Horan, J Roff; D Knox, G Gregan; D Crowley, M Foley, A Blades, W Waugh, J Eales capt., D Manu, D Wilson, M Brial. Replacements: P Howard, S Payne, A N Other, A Heath, M Caputo, A N Other.