Discarded Lions told they have vital role

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The Independent Online

Two tours as a player and another four as a coach have convinced Ian McGeechan that while the Lions may always field strong Test sides, the ultimate success of a venture rests squarely on the shoulders of those who fail to make the cut.

Two tours as a player and another four as a coach have convinced Ian McGeechan that while the Lions may always field strong Test sides, the ultimate success of a venture rests squarely on the shoulders of those who fail to make the cut.

Many New Zealanders are yet to be persuaded that the 2005 vintage are capable of fielding a genuinely strong team of any description - most of the country is still laughing at the visitors' abject display against the Maori 10 days ago - but the truth or otherwise of the second half of the McGeechan equation will be proved today.

The Lions are in Invercargill which is just about as far from anywhere as any town in the southern hemisphere can possibly be. Suffice to say: next stop, the penguins. It is an inhospitable place, both climactically and rugby-wise; the Stags, as the local Southland team is known, revel in handing out warm welcomes in bitterly cold conditions. They are not up to much skill-wise these days, but they will not be found wanting in the aggression department.

It is a supremely awkward game for those Lions who have flown south from Christchurch to participate, for not a single one of them wants to be here. Assuming Sir Clive Woodward, the head coach, is true to his word, their presence at the Rugby Park Stadium amounts to rejection in terms of Saturday's first Test against the All Blacks. Gavin Henson, Geordan Murphy, Lewis Moody, Martyn Williams and Michael Owen, not to mention replacements of the calibre of Tom Shanklin and Andy Sheridan, all had legitimate ambitions in respect of Saturday's proceedings, and they must feel pig-sick at missing out.

Henson, regarded as a virtual certainty for the élite party, certainly took it hard. "When Clive read out the team for the Southland game I was absolutely devastated," he said. "This will take me a while to get over, because it came as a shock and I didn't sleep at all well that night. At least I have this game against Southland, which will help me get it out of my system. I could be sitting in the hotel just thinking about it.

"I've had a proper chat with Clive, who told me he doesn't have a problem with the way I'm playing. He said he wanted to go with experience for the Test and I understand that. Right now, though, I'm gutted. I felt really low when Wales left me out of the World Cup squad and I never wanted to feel like that again. Luckily, there are three Tests on this tour."

With Henson in point-proving mood, the Lions should beat Southland without too much fuss and bother. The locals have impressive rugby bloodlines. Faolua Muliaina, their centre, is the brother of the All Black full-back Mils Muliaina, while Jason Rutledge, their hooker, is the son of the tough Test flanker Leicester Rutledge, who toured the British Isles with Graham Mourie's 1987-88 Grand Slam-winning team. But they have little in the way of serious quality.

But the word "should" has little relevance in these circumstances, as McGeechan said. "People are bound to feel some disappointment at this stage of the tour; you have to remember that we're talking about established international players here," he said.

"Their job now is two-fold - to support those in the Test squad, and to challenge them. Without every player pulling in the same direction, life will become very awkward. It is absolutely essential that those not involved against the All Blacks this weekend play their part in creating the positive environment we need."

McGeechan revealed that Sunday's selection meeting had been "difficult" in the extreme. "So many people had put up their hands for a place in the Test squad, that it was more a matter of making decisions on the basis of tactical evaluation and player combinations than of saying one guy was better than the other," he explained. And while he did not suggest there had been any significant disagreement among the coaches, he did not paint a picture of complete unanimity either.

Predictably, Henson's demotion to "dirt-tracker" status generated the most comment here, not least within the All Black camp. In Christchurch, where Graham Henry's squad held a vigorous and combative open training session in front of the best part of 2,000 spectators, the brilliant outside-half Daniel Carter admitted to being taken aback by the disappearance of the Welshman from the weekend frame.

"Yes, I am surprised," he said. "Henson had a great Six Nations Championship. Maybe they'll play Jonny Wilkinson at centre - we know what he can do in defence and how much he likes confrontation."

He was not willing to go much further in crediting the Lions with making an impact on All Black thinking, however. Carter rejected any suggestion that he might have borrowed something from Wilkinson's uniquely physical approach to the No 10 position - "I took things from people like Andrew Mehrtens and Carlos Spencer, but I'm my own player" - and did not appear much interested in who the tourists selected, and where, come the big day.

"It's pretty minor, really," he said, as cool as you like. "Our main focus is on ourselves, on what we want to do and what we want to get out of the game. The Lions have taken some steps up since they first arrived - I thought they were really fizzing in the tackle area when they played Wellington last week - but we've covered a lot of ground in the short time we've been together. I've taken everything on board. Now, it's a matter of directing things in the way we've planned."