Decision time for Sir Clive - English or Welsh accent?

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The Independent Online

The best form of attack is defence. In the absence of blazing a trail to the try-line in New Zealand the Lions will attempt to do the next best thing, and that is deny the All Blacks possession and kick them into submission. It may not win many marks for artistic merit, but if the end justifies the means, so be it.

Even when the Lions put Wellington, supposedly the second-best provincial side in the country, in an armlock last Wednesday there was precious little sign of a brilliant cutting edge, although in much better conditions the tourists enjoyed an excellent second half in yesterday's victory over Otago in Dunedin.

In Wellington, the Lions fielded the nucleus of their Test side, with Dwayne Peel and Jonny Wilkinson at half- back, Gethin Jenkins and Julian White propping an impressive scrum and Martin Corry emerging as the leader of the pack in the absence of Lawrence Dallaglio. In the 19-13 loss to the magnificent Maori in Hamilton last weekend, Corry was absent from the back row, and the bemused Lions forwards were herded into a corner.

"That defeat has made us more determined," Sir Clive Woodward said. "We were beaten because of the way we played rather than because of things we couldn't control, and that means there are aspects of our game we can put right. When we're really playing for keeps our strongest side will be on the field."

Against the Maori the Lions were in so much trouble at the breakdown they could have done with an AA recovery truck on the touchline. The loss, through injury, not only of Dallaglio but Simon Taylor, a dynamic performer on his day, has altered the back-row equation, but the replacements, Simon Easterby and Ryan Jones, have stepped up to the mark.

As swaps go this hasn't worked out too badly at all, and yesterday Jones gave the selectors something to think about by playing a blinder. His dovetailing - or Osprey-tailing - with Shane Williams turned the match in flashes which were reminiscent of Wales's approach in the Six Nations. Will it influence Woodward's approach for the First Test in Christchurch? Probably not.

The head coach is likely to favour Corry flanked by Neil Back and Richard Hill. Back, at 36 the longest-toothed Lion, was outplayed by Joe Worsley (remember him?) in the Premiership final between Leic-ester and Wasps. Then there's Martyn Williams, and his chances, and those of Stephen Jones, would only be improved if the Lions decided to play with a Welsh accent.

For Woodward, though, it is not only a question of back to basics but back to the players who have been there and done it, which explains why, despite the emergence of Ryan Jones, the loss of Dallaglio is such a blow.

Brian O'Driscoll's mission is to match the achievement of John Dawes, the Wales centre who in 1971 became the first and last Lions captain to win a series in New Zealand.

"There is a degree of confusion as to what type of game the Lions want to play," Dawes told the Independent on Sunday, "but they're building towards a team laced with the remnants from England's World Cup victory. Woodward knows what they are capable of. In terms of domination they're gradually getting there.

"I have a few concerns. They haven't properly gelled yet and they're still not creating a great deal. They also have too many players out in New Zealand. The tour's half over and there aren't many opportunities left. There's nothing worse than doing what everybody else does but not playing. Thirty players would have been enough."

Dawes leaves tomorrow for New Zealand, where he will sing for his supper, not as a visiting visionary but as president of the London Welsh RFC choir. Despite his reservations, he believes the Lions have the power to take the series.

"I think it will be close, but if we establish control up front and kick our goals I'm not sure the All Blacks have the forwards to do anything about it. The Lions are very good at ball-winning and retention, and I expect Wilkinson to kick his customary 12 points. If he's not going to play, why take him?

"They've got to improve, but we're in with a good shout. The defeat to the Maori was just a blip. They wanted it more. In the Tests, for the first time ever, we'll have a bigger pack than the All Blacks."

The All Blacks, as they showed in a stunning performance against France in Paris last year, know how to score tries, and there is more to them now than a superficial Super 12 flashness. Any team who can afford to leave out Marty Holah, the Maori flanker who was outstanding against the Lions, Joe Rokocoko and Carlos Spencer must have some special players.

Graham Henry prefers Richie McCaw to Holah, Rokocoko loses out to his cousin Sitiveni Sivivatu, and Spencer has long been playing second fiddle to the maestro Daniel Carter, the All Blacks' only front-line goalkicker. Get Carter will be one of the Lions' big-game tactics.

Although New Zealand will be without Anton Oliver, the Otago hooker, they have a top- notch replacement in Keven Mealamu, which brings us to the Polynesian factor. There's Lauaki, Muliaina, Nonu, Umaga, So'oialo, Tuiali'i and, of course, Sivivatu. The defections from Samoa, Fiji and Tonga have enriched the All Blacks at the cost of rugby in the Pacific Islands.

The Lions may be able to call on three-and-a-bit countries, but New Zealand have redressed the balance by trawling from the archipelagos. And they have the haka, which the Lions have nothing to compare with. I fear they will find a similar story against the All Blacks.

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