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THE LURCH from ecstasy to despair is too easily made on a tour like this. Just as the Lions were well advised to avoid the former emotion after winning their first four matches in New Zealand, so they should now treat the latter exactly the same.
It is, even so, mighty hard after a performance this disappointing and the calamitous succession of injuries to Will Carling, Scott Hastings and Martin Bayfield, followed yesterday by news of Wade Dooley's bereavement.
One setback neither makes nor breaks a tour but the manner and timing - one week before the first Test, against the All Blacks - of the Lions' at Carisbrook were more than merely inconvenient.
From a position of some strength, an 18-8 lead which should have become more, the tourists slid ignominiously to a defeat which finally exposed the shortcomings which had largely been concealed in their earlier games. Above all, the capacity of Saturday's pack to move about with
necessary dispatch is now in serious question.
Otago, in the finest traditions of a province who had already beaten predecessor Lions three times out of six, pulled them this way and that, running the ball with an exuberance not normally associated with this country's rugby. It is the new way: how the All Blacks coach Laurie Mains, formerly Otago's coach for nine years, wants New Zealanders to play the game.
Whether his All Blacks will manage it quite so well is questionable. With Grant Fox at outside-half, they have a points machine but no tactical visionary, and it is possible that the Lions will have a less exacting Test against New Zealand in Christchurch next Saturday. They should not bank on it, though.
It was the Lions' misfortune that Otago produced by far their best rugby of a disappointing season. National champions in 1991 and runners- up last year, Otago lost all four fixtures in the Super 10 competition recently won by Transvaal. 'We were given no chance,' as their marvellous scrum-half, Stuart Forster, put it, 'and we stuffed it right up 'em.'
Forster and his equally astute half- back partner, Stephen Bachop, tormented the Lions with the dynamism of their running game and Bachop's booming kicks. But above all, it was an inspirational and unexpected collective effort that brought the Lions' winning run to an end.
For instance, an unregarded front five expected to be given a torrid time comfortably held the Lions in the scrummage and eventually beat them in the line-out as well, the valiant Bayfield having fought a solitary jumping battle until he was carried off.
And when it came to the breakaway forwards, the Lions were comprehensively undone by the two All Blacks, Jamie Joseph and Arran Pene, and an outstanding newcomer, Josh Kronfeld. Between them these three left Mike Teague, Dean Richards and Peter Winterbottom for dead in getting to and winning any 50-50 loose ball.
This left the Lions backs, once the lightning thrusts of the first half were exhausted, trying to play both on the retreat and with hardly any possession. Inevitably, their performance deteriorated along with that of the forwards.
In the end Otago amassed five tries, an embarrassing statistic after the Lions' previous defensive heroics, to two. Their 37 points, assisted by modern scoring values, was nine worse than the Lions' previous worst against non-Test opposition.
How quickly perceptions change. Last Wednesday, Vance Stewart, the Canterbury coach, made the Lions Test favourites after they had beaten his team 28-10. You would not find many who would agree with him now, though just about everyone here, not least Gordon Hunter, the Otago coach, is warning of a backlash.
Hunter's attention to detail is as impressive as that of his opposite, Ian McGeechan. Not only did he work out the strategy to pull the Lions from side to side but he also spotted a flaw in their mauling which his own forwards exposed so ruthlessly that it brought an astonishing try in which Otago won a line-out and mauled at speed for a full 30 yards to score.
'I had observed that Ian was using four or five players to concentrate on the maul and having tacklers waiting on the outside to save his halves from doing the tackles.' The consequence was no contest: eight Otago forwards driving against five Lions, and a try by the Otago captain, David Latta.
This was a devastating psychological blow, conclusive confirmation that the Lions' first-half advantage had evaporated. It had been good while it lasted: Rory Underwood had created the space for Dean Richards's try and Ieuan Evans exploited Stuart Barnes's floated pass for his third try in three games.
But even at this stage the Lions were creaky in defence, conceding two tries to Paul Cooke, and the unanswered tries by John Leslie, Latta and John Timu that followed in the second half faithfully reflected their ultimate demise.
Otago: Tries Cooke 2, Latta, Leslie, Timu; Conversions Bell 3; Penalty Bell; Drop goal Bachop. British Isles: Tries Richards, Evans; Conversion G Hastings; Penalties G Hastings 4.
OTAGO: J Timu (Taieri); A Bell (Southern), M Ellis, (University), J Leslie (University), P Cooke (Green Island); S Bachop (Southern), S Forster (Southern); N Moore (University), D Latta (Clutha, capt), M Mika (University), G Macpherson (Green Island), A Rich (Zingari-Richmond), J Joseph (Southern), A Pene (Taieri), J Kronfeld (University).
BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Scotland, capt); I Evans (Wales), J Guscott (England), W Carling (England), R Underwood (England); S Barnes (England), D Morris (England); N Popplewell (Ireland), K Milne (Scotland), P Burnell (Scotland), M Bayfield (England), W Dooley (England), M Teague (England), D Richards (England), P Winterbottom (England). Replacements: S Hastings (Scotland) for Carling, 10; A Clement (Wales) for S Hastings, 50; M Galwey (Ireland) for Bayfield, 80.
Referee: C Hawke (Timaru).
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