Rugby Union: McGeechan looks for the loopholes: Chris Rea in Dunedin finds both protagonists facing problems before the first Test next week

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The Independent Online
SECOND only to New Zealand's national pastime of playing rugby is talking about it. And there has been a heck of a lot of that since the Lions arrived three weeks ago.

Then the tone was derogatory, derisory even. The tourists' forwards were much too cumbersome to survive in the high-speed world of Test rugby. Moreover, one or two of them had become fossilised, relics of glories past when the 1989 Lions had beaten Australia. After four games and as many victories the tune had changed. Local reaction was positively reverential - the best touring side since 1971. Hard men up front who had not taken a backwards step since the first whistle blew at Whangarei.

Above all, New Zealanders respect forwards who look after themselves although, to be fair, they had been equally effusive about the brilliance of the Lions backs. As well they might, because it had been the back play which carried the tourists through some uncomfortable patches. It was individual skill rather than corporate effort which finally beat the Maoris and Canterbury.

But what will the Kiwis make of the Lions now? Talk is cheap and the tourists know that any praise in these parts is a double-edged weapon, designed to lull the opposition into a false sense of security and act as a stimulus for the All Blacks.

Complacency will not be the problem for the All Blacks at Christchurch on Saturday. Instead there is uncharacteristic uncertainty following last season's defeat in the Bledisloe Cup against Australia and an unconvincing tour to South Africa where the tight forwards were exposed. Three of their fiercest competitors have gone - Gary Whetton to France, Richard Loe to court and the off-form Steve McDowell to the drawing board. Their likely replacements, Robin Brooke, Olo Brown and Craig Dowd, do not have the same capacity to intimidate.

Even the back row, the crack unit in most New Zealand sides, is beginning to look vulnerable. Michael Jones, considered for so long to be the world's finest player, has been relegated to the bench by Auckland.

There is nothing that the Lions do not know about Grant Fox, whose game plan should be easier to follow than Steve Bachop's was yesterday and they can be reassured that Ant Strachan is not yet in the same league as some of his predecessors at scrum-half. There is, too, a growing feeling that Frank Bunce is not the force he was in midfield and that John Timu could be more of a liability at full-back than an attacking threat. After yesterday the New Zealand selectors may feel much the same. But while the Lions had, until yesterday, seen little to unsettle them, they now have some serious problems to solve.

Cold starts like the ones against the Maoris and Canterbury can be overcome by fit, well-organised touring sides in provincial matches, but not in Tests. Neither can fast fades like the one at Dunedin. Ian McGeechan's most pressing concern is how to get his big forwards to the loose ball in sufficient numbers to retain control of the game. Peter Winterbottom missed too many tackles yesterday and, for all his enthusiasm, came a poor second in the loose. The Lions will certainly want to have another look at Richard Webster, whose injury problems have restricted his appearances so far. A good game against Southland on Tuesday could win him a Test place.

Even so, the Lions must squeeze some extra pace from their back row. There is an increasing possibility that McGeechan will employ Ben Clarke on the blind side, which would also extend the Lions options at the back of the line-out where they were mercilessly picked off yesterday. The argument that McGeechan, had he seriously intended such a move, would have given Clarke a run in the position against Otago carries less weight as a result of the player's impressive display on the open side in the Canterbury match. An alternative would be to play Clarke at No 8 and switch Richards to the blind side.

The sight of Wade Dooley struggling in vain to recapture the form which made him an indispensable member of the pack four years ago, is a sad one. He is past it but the Lions may still live in hope that he has at least two great games left in his mighty frame and pick him along with Bayfield in the second row. There are not many alternatives. Neither Andy Reed nor Damian Cronin has shown the necessary consistency and Mick Galwey is here as a flanker. The Lions' scrummaging was poor yesterday. Against two callow youths from Otago, the Lions props could make little impression and on those rare occasions when the tourists went for the big heave, Richards, for reasons best known to himself, was out in the backs.

It was not a good day on which to pass judgement on the backs, but Stuart Barnes with his desire to stand flat, and his habit, under pressure, of running across the field, may be a less suitable candidate at stand-off than Rob Andrew, who did all that McGeechan asked of him in Australia and a little bit more. Barnes will undoubtedly open up more avenues in attack, but, given the Lions' limitations in the loose, they may prefer the more controlled play of Andrew. Dewi Morris was also exposed yesterday and may well have surrendered his place to Robert Jones.

Carling's abrupt exit from the field at Dunedin was as much of a disappointment to the Lions as it was to the player. His potential has so far been infinitely more threatening than his play and he has clearly not relished the pressure applied by New Zealand defences, but he remains a player of the highest class who has much to offer. Now, though, his immediate future is in doubt. This injury is a recurrence of the one which troubled him throughout the Five Nations' Championship, and it leaves Jeremy Guscott and Scott Gibbs as the only fit centres. Yesterday's exercise has turned out to be costly, and perhaps ruinous.

My Test side: G Hastings; Evans, Carling (if fit), Guscott, R Underwood; Andrew, Jones; Leonard, Milne, Burnell, Dooley, Bayfield, Webster, Clarke, Richards.

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