British Isles. . .20
THE LIONS stand proudly today at the summit of the rugby world. It may be a different story after the third Test at Auckland next week, but for now British rugby can be proud of its heroes.
There have been times in the history of conflict between the All Blacks and the Lions when humiliation was the expectation and narrow defeat was a minor triumph. No longer. The Lions, among many other things yesterday, exploded the myth of All Black superiority. The efficiency with which the All Blacks normally go about their business was so rudely disturbed that long before the end they had been reduced to the mediocre. Mere mortals.
The facts first. This was the highest score and the biggest winning margin between the two sides. It was the Lions' first victory over New Zealand since the Second Test at Christchurch in 1977. It was also the most one-sided game of the tour, the Lions' performance in the first half against a significant wind being in the estimation of the coach Ian McGeechan, the finest display of controlled rugby that he has ever seen. No one present would argue with that, nor would they begrudge this charming and diffident man the satisfaction of what he considers to be the finest achievement of his rugby career.
A tour which was heading for oblivion is now firmly back on tracks and for once it is the All Blacks who have a week of grim contemplation ahead. There will be changes in their side, for sure, but not even the suspicion of a tactical switch yesterday, when the ineffective Mark Cooksley was replaced at half-time by Ian Jones, could alter the course of the game.
Although it is invidious to single out individuals on such an occasion, it was the Lions' young line-out giants, Johnson, Bayfield and Clarke who took them to previously unattained heights. They slaughtered the All Blacks in this crucial area and one or two famous names - Michael Jones among them - are unlikely to survive.
While the British supporters shrieked with increasing intensity at every line-out success, those who were not English must have felt a twinge at the prospect of having to face those triple spires in forthcoming Five Nations' championships. They are likely to be around for a long time.
Every bit as glorious was the Lions' defence. The accuracy and the weight of their tackling was devastating and all-consuming. The All Blacks implied afterwards that it might also have been illegal and was, at the very least, outside the spirit of the new laws. New Zealand ran the ball more than the Lions, but they were thwarted at every turn by an impenetrable wall which started at the fringes and spread out to the backs where both Jeremy Guscott and Rob Andrew mowed down their men time and again.
The All Blacks twisted and turned and swerved and squirmed but could find no way through. Their burly winger, Vai'iga Tuigamala, made any number of bullish charges and was the hardest All Black to hold, but, although it sometimes took three men to do it, held he was.
Andrew and Dewi Morris were perfectly in tune at half-back. It was the sort of game in which Morris revels. He took a terrible pounding from the All Black loose forwards, but whenever it seemed that his body could take no more he was back on his feet and into the thickest of the action. Andrew was cool and composed in everything that he did and completely outplayed Grant Fox, who chose this of all days to be wayward with his goal-kicking. He missed two kicks into the wind at critical times in the second half when the All Blacks were desperately seeking inspiration from their matchwinner. His passive response from the set-piece also meant that the Lions' breakaways could afford to ignore him and head straight for their quarry further out.
Gavin Hastings, too, found the wind devilishly difficult, but it is a measure of his confidence that he not only overcame the disappointment of two missed penalty kicks early in the first half, but the shattering knowledge that he had donated a try to the All Blacks after 11 minutes. New Zealand won a ruck and Fox, as he had done for Frank Bunce's try at Christchurch hoisted a high kick up to the Lions line. But this time he sent it too far. Hastings had time to field the ball and clear his lines. Instead he fumbled and the ball fell invitingly for Eroni Clarke to score close to the posts.
It was the worst of starts for the Lions and for Hastings, whose hamstring injury had been the subject of so much pre-match speculation. Worse still was that the Lions had been in almost total control, the onslaught from the Lions' forwards catching the All Blacks cold. The Lions had also been awarded a penalty in a kickable position, but Patrick Robin, the French referee, reversed his decision after Ben Clarke had been singled out as the transgressor in a private skirmish.
Help came from an unlikely source. The referee was not to be intimidated by the crowd or by the frequent interrogation of the All Blacks' captain, Sean Fitzpatrick. Here was an official who controlled the game according to the laws and not the whims of his home union. Why, he even penalised both sides for crooked feeds at the scrummage. A rare bird indeed is M Robin, who can now expect sustained media vilification before next week's decisive Test, which he will also control.
Once the Lions recognised that they were playing under laws familiar to them, they quickly re-established control. The line-out flow resumed and the scrummage, with Jason Leonard and the splendidly mobile Nick Popplewell looking for all the world as they had been chiselled out of granite, was for once on the front foot. Another piece of fine tuning by the selectors had come off, and perhaps Leonard's future lies on the right-hand side of the scrum rather than the left.
There were two critical moments in the match, the first on the stroke of half-time after Hastings had kicked two penalties to narrow the gap to just one point. The Lions won a line-out on the right and Morris sent a measured pass spinning out to Andrew who, on his weaker left foot, sent the ball between the posts with the deftest of drop kicks. Coincidence perhaps, but the last thing that Andrew did at the training session the previous day was to drop a goal with his left foot. On such apparent trifles do Test matches hang, and this meant that the Lions went into half-time with a two- point lead and a tail wind in the second half.
Hastings kicked his third penalty before the Lions struck the decisive blow. The All Blacks, in the midst of one of their sporadic raids, lost the ball at a driving maul. The Lions swooped. Morris passed to Guscott who, in a tightly confined space, somehow managed to create half a yard for Rory Underwood. That was all the winger needed to get past John Kirwan and off he streaked beyond the clawing fingers of John Timu for the All Blacks' line.
A 10-point lead and 20 minutes remaining. The Lions have squandered larger leads during the tour. But not this time. Their concentration never wavered, their desire to win burned even brighter. Hastings, again an inspirational figure, kicked his fourth penalty. Only then did the Lions know that they had levelled the series and won a famous victory.
NEW ZEALAND: J Timu (Otago); J Kirwan (Auckland), F Bunce (North Harbour), E Clarke, V Tuigamala; G Fox (Auckland), J Preston (Wellington); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown, R Brooke (Auckland), M Cooksley (Counties), J Joseph (Otago), Z Brooke, M Jones (Auckland). Replacement: I Jones (North Auckland) for Cooksley, 40 min.
BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Scotland, capt); I Evans (Wales), J Guscott (England), S Gibbs (Wales), R Underwood; R Andrew, D Morris (England); N Popplewell (Ireland), B Moore, J Leonard (England), M Johnson, M Bayfield, B Clarke, D Richards, P Winterbottom (England).
Referee: P Robin (France).
Scores: Clarke / Fox (try / con, 11 min, 7-0); Hastings (pen, 29 min, 7-3); Hastings (pen, 35 min, 7-6); Andrew (drop goal, 40 min, 7-9); Hastings (pen, 46 min, 7-12); Underwood (try, 60 min, 7-17); Hastings (pen, 70 min, 7-20).
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