Battered Lions are thrown into crisis

The most rancid 24 hours in recent Lions history - perhaps the sourest in the entire 117 years of British Isles tours to the great rugby strongholds of the southern hemisphere - finally drew to a close yesterday with Sir Clive Woodward's team up to their necks in crisis.

Badly beaten by the All Blacks in Christchurch at the weekend, they moved into the penultimate week of a difficult trip without a badly injured captain in Brian O'Driscoll, a suspended second-row forward in the ever-troublesome Danny Grewcock and the remnants of a once ambitious squad teetering on the precipice of disillusionment.

No sooner had the Lions hierarchy finished venting spleen over the fact that two accused New Zealanders, the All Black captain, Tana Umaga, and the hooker Keven Mealamu, had escaped censure for a dangerous - some would say downright disgraceful - assault that left O'Driscoll with a horribly dislocated right shoulder and no further part to play on this trip, than they were knocked sideways by the news that Grewcock had been found guilty of biting Mealamu and suspended for two months.

With Richard Hill, the experienced World Cup-winning flanker from England, and Tom Shanklin of Wales, an obvious candidate for a wing or centre position in the second Test here in five days' time, being invalided out with knee problems, the news would hardly have been worse had the entire squad been lost in the Tasman. Hill's injury, a ruptured cruciate ligament suffered during the first half of the Christchurch Test, was said to be career-threatening - a depressing end to a desperate chain of events.

Grewcock's ban, imposed by the independent judicial officer from Australia, Terry Willis, could also mark the end of the road, certainly at international level. The Bath lock had been on the field only six or seven minutes as a replacement when he was alleged to have applied his teeth to one of Mealamu's fingers - "Not long on the pitch, but more than enough time to work up an appetite," said one highly placed New Zealander, caustically - and although he denied the charge and was represented by the Lions' resident barrister, Richard Smith QC, he lost the case after some eight hours of argument.

Willis's published judgement painted a peculiar picture of the incident, bordering on the bizarre. "Mealamu's fingers inadvertently entered Grewcock's mouth at a breakdown situation," it read. "Rather than remove them in a more conventional way, Grewcock bit Mealamu's right ring finger." Given Grewcock's previous on the disciplinary front he was probably fortunate to escape as lightly as he did. In 1998, he became only the second Englishman ever to be to sent off in an international when he kicked Anton Oliver in the head during a Test in Dunedin. He missed England's 2003 trip to New Zealand because he was already suspended, but returned a year later and was banned again for booting Daniel Carter in Auckland.

Woodward had little sympathy for his least disciplined forward, even though the two men had not discussed the Mealamu matter. Biting is one of the deadlier sins in rugby's manual of dark arts and no previous such incident has been recorded in Lions annals. "If he's done something wrong, as he appears to have done, I'm happy he was cited and I'm glad he was dealt with," the coach said. "I can't imagine there will be any appeal, although I'll have to talk it through with Bill Beaumont [the Lions tour manager], who has been with Danny all day. Will we send him straight home? I don't know. We'll have to talk about that, too."

He may find that Grewcock makes his decision for him. "I don't agree with the outcome because, as I argued at the hearing, I didn't bite the player at all," he insisted. "However, I have to accept the finding, and I intend to return home as soon as I can. I think that is the best course of action for the squad, as well as for myself." For his part, Woodward had been far more exercised in defending his decision to put the names of Mealamu and Umaga before the citing officer for Saturday's Test, the South African Willem Venter, who promptly decided there was no case to answer in respect of O'Driscoll's injury. The Lions held a public screening of television footage that showed the two All Blacks grabbing the captain's legs at a ruck less than a minute into the match and tipping him over with considerable force as the nearest touch-judge, Andrew Cole of Australia, ordered them to "leave him alone".

"To my mind," Woodward said, "it was a dangerous and illegal tackle and should at least have been investigated. We weren't saying these people were guilty, but they should certainly have been called in to explain their actions. If you're going to send a bloke all the way from South Africa to adjudicate on a rugby game, you hope and trust he will do the job properly. Unfortunately, he's now on his way back home, having refused to discuss his findings with us."

O'Driscoll was angrier than anyone had ever seen him. "There were times after the game when I found it hard to keep the tears back," he admitted, nursing his arm in a sling. "It's difficult to talk about, even now. I'm disappointed there was no hearing, because I certainly feel there was plenty in the incident. I'm also disappointed that Umaga did not come up to me when I was being stretchered off. I would have thought that was common courtesy between two captains. Maybe there was an element of guilt there. Was it premeditated? There is no way of knowing. I do think the tackle was unnecessary, and certainly beyond the laws of the game." A notion that O'Driscoll had infuriated the All Blacks with what some New Zealanders saw as a disrespectful reaction to the pre-match haka was dismissed by Woodward. "That was my idea," he said, talking of the Lions' unusual response to the war-cry challenge, which involved them forming in a semi-circle behind the captain and their youngest player, the scrum-half Dwayne Peel. "I'd received an e-mail from a genuine Maori telling me this was what we should do. We were trying to show respect." Amid all this, the Wales full-back and captain, Gareth Thomas, was handed the captaincy for the rest of the tour. Thomas was the closest Lion to the O'Driscoll incident - he chased after the touch-judge Cole to remonstrate with him - and yesterday, he offered an insight into the tourists' deep sense of resentment.

"It's been a pretty ugly weekend for all of us," he said, "and I do think the two New Zealand players owe Brian an apology, especially if they knew what they were doing and understood the possible consequences. There is a feeling of anger, definitely. Brian is a quality person and every last one of us was prepared to follow him in this series. To hear him screaming on the floor, as I did, was not something to remember. Yes, I'm honoured to be captain, but the circumstances are not those I would have chosen."

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