Rugby Union: Testing time for the Lions: The British Isles tour to New Zealand promises to be the most arduous yet. Chris Rea reports, and picks three players to watch from each side

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The Independent Online
'I EXPECT,' said Ian McGeechan before departing with his Lions party for New Zealand, 'to have a few more grey hairs by the time I come back.' No one knows better than McGeechan, who toured there as a member of the 1977 Lions team and as coach of the Scottish side three years ago, the demands made of players and officials in the land of the long white cloud where, for British sides at least, there have been precious few silver linings. Strong men of immense stature have been broken by the experience.

It is unquestionably the most arduous tour of all for the sheer intensity of the rugby and the often prurient interest of the public.

In 1977, a female journalist infiltrated the Lions' camp and later reported that not only were the tourists rotten rugby players but, even more damning in her view, they were lousy lovers. In these circumstances it is all too easy for the players to become sullen and introspective. The barricades go up and the players seek refuge in each other's company. It happened in 1977 and it must be one of the management's priorities to ensure that it does not happen again on this tour.

Geoff Cooke, although limited in his experience of New Zealand, has a good track record in team management and also in his dealings with the media. But so much of what happens off the field will depend upon how well the Lions perform on it.

Victorious sides may not win over the hearts of their hosts who find it all too easy to be generous to losers, but they will at least gain their admiration and respect no matter how grudgingly it is given. Win and everything becomes easier; lose and the interminable waits in airport lounges become all the more tiresome, the training twice as much of a chore.

The weather in New Zealand is another cause of discontent and here the 1977 Lions were particularly unfortunate. But there is good reason to believe that this touring party would not be in the least disgruntled were the rain to fall and were the pitches to be heavy. Their forwards are not built for speed nor are they designed to play on hard, fast surfaces.

If it is the Lions' plan to overpower the opposition up front, then it is surely a misguided one as was proved in 1977 and 1983 in New Zealand and in South Africa in 1980. It would be an even greater misjudgement under the new laws to which New Zealanders have adapted far more enthusiastically than players and coaches in this country. Where previous Lions sides were able to gain a sizeable measure of control through their forwards, this side will find it much harder to commit and embroil the oppostion in the tight.

Gary Whetton, the former All Black lock and captain, is of the opinion that unless the Lions can somehow pin down the All Blacks and dominate them in the scrums and mauls, they could well be overrun in the Test series. 'The Lions could even be troubled by a second division side like North Auckland,' says Whetton. 'They are incredibly mobile and will run at the Lions from all parts of the field and at all angles.'

We have, of course, heard this sort of thing before and when it comes to one-upmanship the New Zealanders are definitely First Division material, but no one doubts that this will be a punishing tour both physically and mentally.

With a midweek game before the third and final Test against Waikato, the country's champion province, the itinerary is as hard as any taken on by the Lions. There is so little time before the selectors must settle on their Test combination. McGeechan has spoken of his core of 13 former Lions, but, worryingly, no more than four of them can be certain a Test place.

The All Blacks, on the other hand, can expect to field a reasonably established side although one which, for the first Test at least, will be without John Kirwan, who is still in Italy, and Richard Loe, who has been suspended for the season. There is a log-jam of players queueing up to fill the three back-row positions, and not even the great Michael Jones, who has been playing at No 8 for Auckland in the absence of Zinzan Brooke, can be certain of his place on the open side. Today's national trials will give the selectors a clearer idea, and one hopes that, unlike other tours, the Lions will have a representative present.

But for the present, the Lions' management have enough on their minds with their own team. It is a talented party, notwithstanding the doubts surrounding those whose advanced playing licences are perilously close to their expiry date, and what appears to be a serious selectorial gaffe at loose forward. Yet it is hard to believe that McGeechan has not got the players he wants, and the McGeechan factor is the imponderable. As he showed with the Scotland side in 1990, he has an infinite capacity to surprise the opposition and a knack of keeping one step ahead. This, however, will be his greatest test.

THE LIONS

GAVIN HASTINGS

(Scotland) Full-back. Born: 3 January 1962. International debut: 1986. 45 caps, 424 points.

A SENSIBLE choice as captain even though he is not in the best position to make tactical judgements. As the planning will be done in advance, this may not be a problem. No defence can rest when Hastings is on the prowl, and the game has few better tacklers. As the party's No 1 goal-kicker he will be under extra pressure. He can kick everything from huge distances and wicked angles, but miss the simplest close-range attempts.

WILL CARLING

(England) Centre. Born: 12 December 1963. International debut: 1988. 42 caps (35 as captain), seven tries.

CARLING's relegation to the ranks after four years as England captain could be the best thing that has happened to this extravagantly talented young man. His play this season fell below its previous standards. However, his power and pace could disrupt and damage the All Blacks' midfield. He is also a destructive tackler, although he occasionally suffers from defensive aberrations. Could be player of the series.

WADE DOOLEY

(England) Lock forward. Born: 2 October 1957. International debut: 1985. 55 caps, two tries.

BY NO means certain of his Test place after his performances in the Five Nations' Championship, but is nevertheless a key member of the party. His strength and experience are vital if the Lions are to control the tight-forward exchanges in the scrums and, more importantly, the rucks. This they must do if they are to reduce the threat of the New Zealand loose forwards. Dooley could also unsettle the All Blacks' middle jumper, Ian Jones.

NEW ZEALAND

SEAN FITZPATRICK

(Auckland) Hooker. Born: 4 June 1963. International debut: 1986. 49 caps (47 in succession), five tries.

SURPRISINGLY installed as captain in succession to Gary Whetton and in the absence of the injured Mike Brewer. He has undergone a character transformation as a result of the appointment. A classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper, this combative and often cantankerous player is now the prince of sweet reason. His form has also shown a marked improvement.

GRANT FOX

(Auckland) Fly-half. Born: 16 June 1962. International debut: 1985. 41 caps, second in all-time scoring list with 573 points.

SINCE he first came into the All Blacks' side, Fox has never convinced the doubters about his ability. But he has shown superlative form since losing his international place last season against the World XV and Ireland. His accuracy with the boot has turned defeat into victory on countless occasions. His recent performances for Auckland helped them into the final of the Super Ten competition against Transvaal later this month.

IAN JONES

(North Auckland) Lock forward. Born: 17 April 1969. International debut: 1990. 26 caps, three tries.

JONES will have played only two first- class matches before he meets the Lions in the opening game of the tour at Whangarai. At 6ft 5in, he is significantly shorter than the tallest of the Lions' forwards - Andy Reed, 6ft 7in, Wade Dooley, 6ft 8in, and Martin Bayfield, 6ft 10in. But as the tallest All Black he will have a vital role to play in winning line-out ball. A likely successor to Sean Fitzpatrick as captain.

(Photograph omitted)

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