Rugby Union: Management passes the test in maintaining pride of lions: New Zealanders show astonishment and delight at absence of the siege mentality that accompanied visits of previous tourists

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE anguished aftermath of a Test defeat that should have been victory the Lions have picked themselves up, dusted themselves down and picked up exactly where they had left off when the All Blacks inconvenienced them in Christchurch. To have done so has been a considerable achievement.

This week, while they have been recuperating here in New Plymouth, has been a test of the management's calibre as much as the players', of the capacity of Ian McGeechan and Geoff Cooke to lift their men before they fell into a pit of depression. They have succeeded famously but then if we are to take Cooke's word for it, the Lions' response was so positive that they did not actually have to do very much to raise spirits and restore confidence.

All right, the Lions now need no persuading that they are at least the All Blacks' equals and maybe even their superiors but the plain fact is they lost the first Test of a three- match series and therefore dare not lose again. It is a daunting prospect. Were they to do so, that really would be a test of the management's skill as both revivalists and diplomatists.

But even then, it would be hard to imagine the tour falling apart as others have. Recalling the siege mentality that overcame the Lions here in 1983, New Zealanders are astounded - and delighted - at the openness and good humour of these tourists, characteristics that have been

encouraged by the enlightenment of Cooke and McGeechan, the manager and coach. Just as long as they do not have the cheek to go and win as well . . .

There is no reason to suppose it will not last, whatever adversity may lie ahead in the Tests in Wellington on Saturday week and Auckland a week later. In defeat by Otago and New Zealand just as much as in the games that have been won, the articulate Cooke has struck up a relationship with the domestic media which has consistently presented the Lions in a favourable light to the NZ public.

This has partly been of necessity because McGeechan has preferred to keep his counsel, a diametric and very obvious change from 1989 when he spoke long and often while coaching Finlay Calder's Lions in Australia. Here McGeechan prefers to deprive the opposition of information, not give it to them on a platter.

Hence the regular private training sessions which these Lions have held (two in first-Test week), and if that seems a perverse example of openness it is his way of getting the Lions away from it all and not unreasonable. In fact McGeechan regrets he did not do the same in Australia, while Cooke has a theory that film of the Lions' training gets back by however circuitous a route to the All Blacks.

That Cooke's position is of such significance shows how the manager's role has changed from 1989 and been adapted to suit present personnel. On the one hand, there is no doubt that these Lions were always intended to be made in McGeechan's image, otherwise the home unions' committee would not have taken the unprecedented step of appointing the Scottish coach for a second tour.

On the other hand, while McGeechan and his assistant, Dick Best, get on with the coaching, Cooke has a watching brief which is critical in evaluating players' attitudes and morale. This was not the case in '89, when Clive Rowlands's function dwindled to that of a post-match speech-maker. Somehow, he never looked convincing in his track-suit.

Rowlands, a voluble Welshman, did the speechifying rather well, but at the start of the tour he wanted to be seen as having an integral part in playing matters and ended up a ludicrous figure when he led a walk-out from the press conference which followed the Lions' taut game against Australian Capital Territory with McGeechan and the assistant coach, Roger Uttley, reluctantly in tow.

On this tour Best's role is clearly subservient in a way Uttley's was not when the Lions arrived in Australia, though once they had lost the first Test by a crushing 30-12 Uttley was effectively elbowed out of the decision- making process. The sight of the amiable Uttley forlornly making off for a swim with the reserves while the Test side were still practising on the morning before the Brisbane match was as mournful as anything that occurred on that tour.

There is no danger of any repeat. Best, Uttley's post-World Cup successor as England coach, has gladly remained in the background in New Zealand and patently knows his place in a way Uttley - who, like McGeechan but unlike Best, had been a distinguished Lion - understandably did not. A form of player-power, exerted by Englishmen as well as Scots, excluded Uttley and its justification was that the Lions went on to win the series 2-1.

It could scarcely be more different now. The Lions could get away with it in Australia but in New Zealand, where the sporting god called rugby spills into more or less every aspect of life, if there were so much as a whiff of factionalism or division the Lions' chance of pulling the series round would be gone.

Garry Pagel, the Western Province prop, has been banned until the end of next March following an incident involving Jean-Francois Tordo, the French captain, who needed 50 stitches after his face was raked during the tourists' match in Cape Town last Saturday.

(Photograph omitted)