British Isles. . . .29
SOONER or later the Lions had to encounter a referee as unsympathetic as the opposition. On this tour it was as soon as the second match and the fact that yesterday they saw off North Harbour - third in last year's provincial championship - despite Alan Riley was a colossal triumph.
This is not to suggest the Lions were blameless. Far from it. But the moment you take a backward step in New Zealand you are dead and these tourists are quite prepared to mix it at the closest quarters. This may not please Kiwi referees but it would be ludicrous to suggest that at Mount Smart Stadium they were any worse offenders than North Harbour, not to the tune of 20 penalties to six anyway.
The line-out penalty count was an astounding 10-2. With the endless penalties, so the Lions' discipline deteriorated; with the deterioration in discipline, so the penalties mounted. Finally things boiled over when Dean Richards put the boot in, though even then the offence followed an obvious offside by Frank Bunce, the culprit who peremptorily became the victim and played on swathed in head bandages.
Richards was immediately on the end of a flurry of punches from Graham Dowd which put him out of the match and temporarily in hospital. The Hinckley PC's jaw is made of stern stuff; an X-ray examination showed no more than bruising and if required he could play against the Maoris on Saturday.
Unsavoury it may have been, but even Brad Meurant, the North Harbour coach, found the collective punch-up acceptable. 'Both sides did the right thing: everyone went in and helped his mates,' he said. 'I expect it from my side and I'm sure the Lions would expect it from theirs.' This was an unusually candid view from the sidelines. We all know they think these things, but to have the nerve to say them . . .
Ultimately even the TVNZ commentators agreed that consistency would not have come amiss from Riley, but the Lions management would not be drawn into the refereeing. Ian McGeechan, the coach, would not even admit to being worried though, like it or not, he may come to be if the disparity in penalties continues.
It can be guaranteed that Auckland, to name but one, will not allow the Lions to get away with such indiscretion. North Harbour did - by the profligacy of their place-kicker John Carter, who missed five penalty shots, and the hopeless disorganisation under pressure of their backs.
As these included three current All Blacks - Strachan, Little and Bunce - and the Harbour team as a whole had nine past or present All Blacks, this was a measure of the success in the loose of the Lions forwards, the incisiveness of their backs in attack and the superbly offensive defence of the entire XV. No one did his cause any harm and the likes of Gibbs, Tony Underwood and Popplewell did theirs a lot of good.
Already the Lions have earned the respect of New Zealanders who wrote them off two months ago. 'The media said the Lions were too big, too old, too slow - they ought to run around out there for 80 minutes with them,' North Harbour's captain, Richard Turner, gasped.
In two matches the Lions have taken up the challenge at forward, played the percentages when it suited and likewise the open game. Yesterday this nice tactical variation, the choices well made by Rob Andrew, brought four splendid tries to one.
Tony Underwood's slashing diagonal, synchronised with any number of dummy runs and followed by contributions from Gavin Hastings and Will Carling's shoulder, made the first for Andrew. Underwood added a sensational individual try, showing elusiveness when he disdainfully rounded Eric Rush and strength by bouncing off Ian Calder as he chased his own grubber-kick.
It became impossible for the Lions to build momentum, so frequently did they infringe. 'It's very difficult when every time you are competing for the ball you get penalised,' Hastings, a frustrated captain, said.
From 15-3 they were reeled in to 15-13. Apollo Perelini scored the home try before the Lions - rather as the rest of the tour party had against North Auckland last Saturday - roused themselves for a conclusive closing surge.
Peter Winterbottom ran back John Carter's loose clearance, sweet movement of the ball creating a try by Ieuan Evans. Then Richard Webster, Richards's impressive replacement, surged over for a final try. It was no more than they deserved for a performance that has elevated the 1993 Lions tour into the firmament.
North Harbour: Try Perelini; Conversion Carter; Penalties Carter 2. British Isles: Tries Andrew, T Underwood, Evans, Webster; Conversions G Hastings 3; Penalty G Hastings.
North Harbour: I Calder (Massey); E Rush (Takapuna), F Bunce (Helensville), W Little (Glenfield), R Kapa (Northcote); J Carter, A Strachan (both East Coast Bays); K Boroevich, G Dowd (both Takapuna), R Williams, D Mayhew (both Northcote), B Larsen (Takapuna), A Perelini (Massey), R Turner (Northcote, capt), L Barry (East Coast Bays). Replacement: D George (Takapuna) for Larsen, 79.
BRITISH ISLES: G Hastings (Scotland, capt); I Evans, S Gibbs (both Wales), W Carling, T Underwood; R Andrew, D Morris (all England); N Popplewell (Ireland), K Milne, P Burnell (both Scotland), M Bayfield, W Dooley, M Teague, D Richards, P Winterbottom (all England). Replacement: R Webster (Wales) for Richards, 56.
Referee: A Riley (Cambridge, Waikato).
Carl Hogg scored three tries as Scotland beat Fiji Juniors 51-3 in Suva yesterday. The Fijians held the visitors to an 8-0 lead at half-time, but the Scots ran riot after the interval, with two tries each from Ian Nicol and Murray Wallace and one from Nick Grecian to add to Hogg's haul. Grecian also added four conversions and a penalty, while Apifai Driu, with a penalty, registered the Juniors' only points.