Campbell's twisted campaign is impaled on the sword of simple sporting truths

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The Independent Online

One was that if sport is indeed the playpen of life, it is one where truth has a way of wriggling - or in this case roaring - into the open. Here, over the last week or so, truth has been as rampant as the All Black heroes, Tana Umaga, Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw.

Truth has mauled and rucked and run into the ground the idea that sport can be manipulated like a political campaign, that somehow the spin doctoring skills of an Alastair Campbell had any place in the Lions tradition that down the years has been about so much of the best of our sporting life.

In New Zealand, the sporting life does not lack a serious debate. But it is one which is conducted in terms that are a planet away from the broiling controversies of, say, the Premiership. There is a degree of competitive respect and analysis which is stunning. Pizzagate couldn't happen here. Nor the Ashley Cole affair. Nor the Mourinho style of shaping events - and the career of a leading referee.

If Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger conducted their arguments here in the way that they do in England, they would have to do so in a back room. There would be no public appetite for their blaring self-interest. Here there is simply too much respect for the idea of sport and its deepest values.

First in Christchurch, then here this last weekend, Campbell's professional conviction that in sport you can twist something as basic as crushing defeat into the status of victimhood - and that anything other than a brief blurring of reality can result - has been shattered. It gives nothing, Campbell must know now, other than an extra cause for already committed opponents.

What works in the corridors of Westminster and some corners of Fleet Street, the All Blacks have declared with an intensity of shocking but cleansing force, is doomed to failure in the truth test of sport. You could not fudge the figures at the Jade or Westpac stadiums. They shone out from the scoreboards: All Blacks 21 Lions 3; All Blacks 48 Lions 18.

New Zealand, weary of the Lions' propaganda, were almost dizzy with vindication. One newspaper ran on its front page the first Test score in bold numbers and said: "Spin that, Lions."

Campbell could play up the devastating loss of the Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll in the first minute of the first Test, he could spin distraction for a week, but whom and what did it serve? It couldn't bring back the vibrant skills of O'Driscoll and still less could it effectively brand Umaga, the All Blacks captain, a thug. Soon enough the players had to go back on the field, and when they did where did that leave Campbell? A figure of deeply felt contempt in this land where rugby is as much a staple of life as a loaf of bread. The All Black coach Graham Henry was asked if he had highlighted as motivational tools some of the headlines. His face was filled with contempt and he said: "There isn't enough wallpaper to put up all that crap - and why would we bother? We know who and what we are."

Umaga didn't suddenly recreate himself as some sinister assassin in the rain and sleet of Christchurch. His first Test against the Lions came after years of superb service to the All Blacks and, if he was reckless in the way he helped his team-mate Keven Mealamu clear out a ruck, the idea that O'Driscoll had been coldly targeted had no credence among men who had played the game at the highest level and, like everyone here, were obliged to study rerun after rerun of inconclusive film.

It didn't suit the Campbell script that when a trophy room in Umaga's house in a green valley over the hill from here is finally decorated, pride of place will go to the Fair Play award he was given after he abandoned play and rushed to the aid of an unconscious opponent, the Welsh flanker Colin Charvis. Umaga moved Charvis into the recovery position and checked that he hadn't swallowed his tongue.

Because of the impact of the dramatic demonstration of his team-mate Carter that he now had to be considered the world's best rugby player, some of the meaning of Umaga's performance in the second Test may have been lost. But not in his home town of Wainuiomata. There, they knew the pride of Umaga, his contribution to the Samoan and Maori community, and the fact that he would never play a more important rugby match. As it happened, the All Black captain's effort in Wellington was monumental - and no one doubted that much of its motivation had come from the campaign launched by Campbell after the first Test. Spin was not so much defeated as ransacked. The last week of the tour, whatever the Lions' head coach Sir Clive Woodward says, is a nightmare competitive void. The Test series has been lost and the All Blacks, denied the services of the luminous Carter, have little to prove.

All that is left is a degree of recognition that almost everything about this Lions expedition was wrong: its excessive, unwieldy size, its lack of proper match preparation, even its moral base as represented by that unprecedented campaign of spin. It may be that in the next few days Woodward will step out of a mood of denial that in the wake of the second Test was painful to see. He may finally grasp that just as he got almost everything right in his World Cup campaign with England, here his misjudgements have fed on each other. One statement alone after the second Test indicated that he had become lost in the moral maze. When his All Black opposite number, Henry, said that punching had no place in rugby, Woodward said it happened - and that players tended not to get injured from punching. He was back in the worn-out O'Driscoll controversy. Now he was spinning his wheels as well as the facts.

There are more than a few lessons to be learnt from the four million New Zealanders who invest so heavily in their national sport. You cannot go about the beautiful land without being impressed by the depth of the commitment to the game. While football-obsessed England fills its national game with foreigners, New Zealand makes its Richie McCaws and Daniel Carters with infinite care.

One abiding memory will be a journey to Carter's home town of Southbridge on a winter's afternoon when six and seven-year-olds were being coached on one of the fields where the national hero learnt the game. The club president spoke of a pride that he knew would be shared by every small town in New Zealand. "Danny's success," he said, "is the national dream and it is worked for day in, day out. You can go to any little town and you will see the meaning of rugby, and I cannot tell you how much Danny's success has brought to us. It touches everything."

That is the unchanging backcloth of All Black rugby - and the explanation of why it has maintained its strength and is once again poised to beat the world.

The Lions, at a cost of £9m, came here to show New Zealand the way to do it. The leader of the expedition will now take his skills to the world of football. Woodward believes he can impose new levels of organisation and business values on a sport with which he is not familiar. Maybe - maybe not. But if we are talking truth, and the basis of all success in sport, maybe he can help himself and his football club Southampton by taking home a little extra baggage for himself.

It should contain the hardest-earned lesson of these last few weeks. It is that there is only one place to fashion lasting success in sport. It is in the hearts and the minds of your players, and in the trust and respect you give them. Here in New Zealand you see that respect around every corner. Everything else, they know here, simply falls into place. It is has nothing to do with spin - only truth in the most important place of all, out on the field.

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