Rugby Union: Twitch in the tale for Lions

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The Independent Online
AT ONLY its fourth hurdle, the Lions' race through New Zealand has reached the point at which momentous decisions must be made. For as soon as tomorrow's match against Canterbury at Lancaster Park is over, the first-Test team will be formulated in the selectors' minds.

In fact the Test, back here in Christchurch, does not take place until Saturday week but it has been made clear to the players that the choice for Saturday's meeting with Otago, last year's NZ Championship runners-up, will be made with the All Blacks in mind.

This means that the XV facing Canterbury, all-change from those who rose from the dead against the Maoris, will never have played in a more important game in their lives - and that includes the three Englishmen who figured in the 1991 World Cup final.

The tension inherent in such a make-or-break occasion will scarcely be conducive to the relaxed, free-moving rugby which would best suit the tourists. On the other hand, since no Kiwi side - and certainly none of those on this tour's itinerary - will ever let them settle, relaxation is now no more than an off-the-field activity.

Yesterday's jet-boating on the Rakaia river south of Christchurch may have been a welcome diversion but the Lions, more especially those in action at Lancaster Park, could be excused for having their minds elsewhere. In former years the very idea of taking on Canterbury, with their perennially fearsome forwards, in midweek would have been greeted with either ridicule or contempt.

These days Canterbury - seventh of nine in last season's First Division - are a diminished force in New Zealand rugby and their team contains only two All Blacks, the utility back, Shayne Philpott, and the World Cup scrum-half, Graeme Bachop. But they did rout Second Division Southland, the Lions' next-but-two opponents, 88-12 nine days ago.

Their modern penchant is for fluid back play - which should suit the Lions, given the difficulty they have been having up front. The opportunity to take convincing charge of a game in tight and loose may at last bring out the best among forwards who have struggled to adjust to the raw and relentless physicality of New Zealand rugby.

Indeed, the irony of the tour is that the Lions have been bailed out by their backs, that it has been mainly New Zealanders rather than Lions intent on killing the ball on the ground, that many of this country's misconceptions about home-union rugby have been so quickly exposed.

'There's this almost legendary thing that in New Zealand everyone stays on his feet and in the British Isles everyone flops on the ground,' Geoff Cooke, the Lions manager, said. 'At the moment we are staying on our feet better than they are. I've been amazed and it's causing us a bit of consternation.

'They are fairly scathing about British Isles rugby, sometimes almost to the point of arrogance. They were expecting set-piece rugby, play for position and hope to get a penalty, which seems to be their perception of the way we play. But we believed we could play the game differently.' Ten of the 11 tour tries have been scored by backs - and, going in against Canterbury with the firepower to add, that tells its own story.

Canterbury: A Lawry; P Bale, S Philpott, K Hansen, S Cleave; G Coffey, G Bachop; G Halford, M Hammett, S Loe, C England, M McAtamney, T Blackadder, R Penney (capt), G Smith.

BRITISH ISLES: A Clement (Wales); R Wallace (Ireland), J Guscott (England), S Gibbs (Wales), T Underwood; R Andrew (England), R Jones (Wales); J Leonard (England), K Milne, P Burnell (Scotland), M Bayfield (England), A Reed (Scotland), M Galwey (Ireland), D Richards (England, capt), R Webster (Wales).

Referee: J Taylor (Pukekohe).