Bullish Woodward certain Lions' gamble will pay off

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The Independent Online

There is only one thing in rugby more difficult than beating the All Blacks in New Zealand, and that is beating the All Blacks in the South Island of New Zealand. A match in Auckland is quite demanding enough, thank you very much - the silver-ferned brigade have not lost there for more than a decade - but when a team of opponents cross the Cook Strait and head in the general direction of Antarctica, they really are in trouble. Read the history and quake.

Dunedin, home to the so-called "House of Pain", is the most forbidding of the All Black citadels but Christchurch is very nearly as grim: Jade Stadium, known to all right-thinking rugby folk by its former name of Lancaster Park, has hosted 42 Tests since 1913, and witnessed only nine defeats for the home team.

Such is the scale of the challenge facing the British and Irish Lions today in a game Tana Umaga, the fearsome captain with the battle-scarred visage and the hooded eyes, chillingly describes as "a long time in the coming". Umaga seemed perfectly relaxed, even affable, yesterday. There again, so did Al Capone before the St Valentine's Day Massacre.

Under the circumstances, it was quite an achievement of Sir Clive Woodward's to appear even more serene. "I do what I do because of occasions likes this," the head coach said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a must-win match, a one-off, a cup final. It's special. And yes, I am totally confident I've picked the right players."

The proof of that will be in the playing. Has Jonny Wilkinson really been exposed to enough top-level rugby to go the distance in a contest of this magnitude, and out of position at that? Is Woodward correct in believing Jason Robinson's form justifies his participation at full-back? Can the coach be absolutely certain that he hasn't missed a trick with his back-row selection? If he is shown to be wrong on any or all of these issues, the Lions will almost certainly lose the opening Test of the three-match series - the Test which, conventional wisdom suggests, is most likely to go their way.

If the coach was having second thoughts on matters selectorial, there was nothing in his manner to betray him in his uncertainty. Not for the first time on the eve of a major match, Woodward was at his best - bullish in his optimism, dismissive of even the slightest suggestion that he might have misread the runes or gone barking up the wrong tree. He denied he had been too conservative with his loose-forward combination and was even more disdainful of the notion that his side had a duty to entertain.

"If I'd been interested in entertaining people, I'd have picked some of the players I left at home," he said. "We could play the most exciting brand of rugby ever seen, but it's not so exciting if you end up losing. I could have made some popular decisions, but I'm not here to be popular. I've made rational, cold-hearted decisions and I stand by them."

With the local weather experts predicting the sudden appearance of winter just in time for kick-off - wind, rain, freezing temperatures, the whole works - the heavens may be smiling on the Lions. They should hold the whip hand at the scrummage, especially as the referee, Joel Jutge, is a Frenchman with a Frenchman's love of the set-piece collision. They are also strongly equipped to play a tight, close-combat game. Andy Robinson, the forwards coach, wants the likes of Paul O'Connell, Ben Kay and Neil Back to "make it personal" with their opposite numbers.

But if the All Blacks find a way of upping the pace, the absence of Ryan Jones and Martyn Williams from the back row could explode in the Lions' faces like some dodgy fourth-form chemistry experiment. Jerry Collins and Rodney So'oialo are not in the great tradition of New Zealand loose forwards but Richie McCaw very definitely is, and if the Canterbury flanker is given the run of the park, tries will surely follow.

Should the Lions lose - there is unlikely to be more than eight or nine points in it - it will not be the end of the world, and next week's game takes place in Wellington, the least imposing of the All Black venues. On the other hand, defeat will not make life any easier. As Woodward admitted to his critics-in-waiting yesterday: "If we go down here, the bullets will start flying."

* Gareth Thomas is to stand trial for assault in France in the autumn after an incident two years ago. He is charged alongside two other former Bridgend players, Phil Booth and Andy Moore, and the coach, Richard Webster.

Teams for first Test, Jade Stadium, Christchurch

New Zealand

15 L MacDonald (Canterbury)

14 D Howlett (Auckland)

13 T Umaga (Wellington, capt)

12 A Mauger (Canterbury)

11 S Sivivatu (Waikato)

10 D Carter (Canterbury)

9 J Marshall (Canterbury)

1 A Woodcock (North Harbour)

2 K Mealamu (Auckland)

3 C Hayman (Otago)

4 C Jack (Canterbury)

5 A Williams (Auckland)

6 J Collins (Wellington)

7 R McCaw (Canterbury)

8 R So'oialo (Wellington)

Replacements: D Witcombe (Auckland); G Somerville (Canterbury); J Gibbes (Waikato); S Lauaki (Waikato); B Kelleher (Waikato); M Muliaina (Auckland); R Gear (Nelson Bays).

British and Irish Lions

15 J Robinson (England)

14 J Lewsey (England)

13 B O'Driscoll (Ireland, capt)

12 J Wilkinson (England)

11 G Thomas (Wales)

10 S Jones (Wales)

9 D Peel (Wales)

1 G Jenkins (Wales)

2 S Byrne (Ireland)

3 J White (England)

4 P O'Connell (Ireland)

5 B Kay (England)

6 R Hill (England)

7 N Back (England)

8 M Corry (England)

Replacements: S Thompson (England); G Rowntree (England); D Grewcock (England); R Jones (Wales); M Dawson (England); W Greenwood (England); S Horgan (Ireland).

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