Hard knocks refresh Greenwood for Taranaki test

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The Independent Online

New Zealand opinion is divided on the strength of Taranaki, who provide the opposition for the British and Irish Lions at the Yarrow Stadium today, but this much cannot be refuted: last season, they put 50 points on Bay of Plenty, who generated such heat and fury in Rotorua at the weekend that the tourists sweated blood for more than 70 minutes before quelling the local uprising. Will this Taranaki team, who count such luminaries as Graham Mourie and Dave Loveridge among their predecessors, offer similar resistance? The Lions expect nothing less.

New Zealand opinion is divided on the strength of Taranaki, who provide the opposition for the British and Irish Lions at the Yarrow Stadium today, but this much cannot be refuted: last season, they put 50 points on Bay of Plenty, who generated such heat and fury in Rotorua at the weekend that the tourists sweated blood for more than 70 minutes before quelling the local uprising. Will this Taranaki team, who count such luminaries as Graham Mourie and Dave Loveridge among their predecessors, offer similar resistance? The Lions expect nothing less.

"This part of the world produces fantastic players in abundance," the World Cup-winning centre from Harlequins, Will Greenwood, said yesterday. "The game in Rotorua was much as we anticipated - a tough, physical, bruising, questions-asked kind of contest - and we do not doubt for a minute that Taranaki will rise to the occasion."

One of the more intriguing aspects of this second match of the tour surrounds Greenwood's own ability to rise above the misery and mediocrity that have plagued him since that day in Sydney 19 months ago. Rugby life has been a constant struggle - he lost his form, got himself injured and, on returning to full fitness, suffered the indignity of relegation from the Premiership. By common consent he was fortunate to be selected for this venture. There again, a few flashes of footballing sophistication from inside centre today will go a long way towards justifying his inclusion.

Greenwood is a three-time Lion, having toured South Africa as an uncapped babe in swaddling clothes in 1997 and been among the more obvious choices for the trek around Australia four years later. Yet despite the brilliance of his form on both trips, he has yet to don the red shirt on Test day. Injury scuppered him in Springbok country - he very nearly died after being dumped on his head during a match with the Free State in Bloemfontein - and he was crocked in less dramatic circumstances shortly before the start of the serious business with the Wallabies. World Cup notwithstanding, he is a player unfulfilled.

Not that he would admit as much in public. "I've had a couple of knocks - I suppose you could describe what happened to me in South Africa as a knock - but I've been dealt some very good cards in my rugby career and have no regrets," he said. "I'm delighted to be on this tour and my entire focus is on being a part of a winning squad. If we win the Test series and my role turns out to be one of bag carrier ... well, I'll take that. In fact, I'll snatch your hand off. I think I can bring something to this off the field, as well as on."

The inside-centre debate is likely to exercise the minds of the coaches for some days yet. There were times in Rotorua when Gavin Henson looked a million dollars, but Greenwood has never played a bum hand on Lions duty, winning nine of his 10 appearances, and as this is his last hurrah - he will be 33 in October - it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he will stamp his 24-carat class on proceedings.

Taranaki can call on some useful forwards, from the veteran prop Gordon Slater and the uncompromising hooker Andrew Hore to the seven-a-side specialist Chris Masoe at flanker, but the New Zealand cognoscenti doubt they are capable of playing the 15-man game brought to the table by Bay of Plenty on Saturday.

If it is an important occasion for the province, who have not beaten a British Isles touring side since the days of Asquith and Lloyd George, it is more important still for the likes of Graham Rowntree, Danny Grewcock, Lewis Moody, Michael Owen and Geordan Murphy, all of whom have Test ambitions but need to catch the eye to maximise their chances. The side contains few certainties for the opening set-to with the All Blacks - Martin Corry, the captain, probably stands alone in this regard - so any misfires here will be costly.

TARANAKI: S Ireland; S Tagicakibau, M Stewart, C Woods, L Mafi; S Young, C Fevre; A Penn, A Hore, G Slater, S Breman, P Tito (capt), J Willis, C Masoe, T Soqeta; Replacements: P Mitchell, H Mitchell, J Eaton, R Bryant, M Harvey, B Watt, J King.

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS: G Murphy (Ireland); S Horgan (Ireland), W Greenwood (England), O Smith (England), D Hickie (Ireland);C Hodgson (England), C Cusiter (Scotland); G Rowntree (England), A Titterrell (England), J Hayes (Ireland), D O'Callaghan (Ireland), D Grewcock (England), M Corry (England, capt), L Moody (England), M Owen (Wales). Replacements: S Byrne (Ireland), G Jenkins (Wales), B Kay (England), M Williams (Wales), G Cooper (Wales), J Wilkinson (England), G Henson (Wales).

Referee: K Deaker (New Zealand).

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