Henry's plea – put rugby first

The Lions Inquest: Beaten coach says a game serving too many masters has lost sight of its basic priorities
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The Independent Online

When the Lions were in full cry during the first Test, Jeremy Paul, the Wallaby hooker, went down with a shattered knee. As Scott Quinnell scored under the posts, the Australians were in such disarray that not one of them, not even the captain, John Eales, paid any attention to their stricken colleague. The only player to offer comfort was Jonny Wilkinson.

Graham Henry, the Lions coach, believed he had the firepower to hurt the Wallabies, but four tries in Brisbane must have exceeded his expectations. While the Wallabies travelled to Melbourne to prepare for the second Test, the Lions flew, economy class, to Canberra for a midweek match with the ACT Brumbies. For the Test players it was an unnecessary diversion. For Martin Corry a match too far. With injuries mounting, Corry played against the Brumbies – the Super 12 champions rested 13 internationals – as no other back-row men were available. Yet Henry could have rested Corry, who played a significant role in the Tests, for one of the underemployed lock-forwards. So what if Malcolm O'Kelly, one of the disaffected tourists, had a run in the back row?

The Lions had faded in the final quarter in Brisbane, but after leading 29-3 were untouchable. In Melbourne the Lions looked equally dominant, at least in the first half. They led 11-3, scant reward for the openings they had created, and were then hit by a sucker punch that arguably turned the series. Instead of going in at half-time with a handsome lead, the Lions' advantage was just five points. This, of course, was obliterated within a matter of seconds of the restart when Joe Roff intercepted Wilkinson's pass. For the first time the Wallabies began to look and play like world champions.

Other factors conspired to undermine Martin Johnson's dream of back-to-back series victories, following South Africa four years ago. There was the loss through injury of a core of England's in-form players, in particular Lawrence Dallaglio. Quinnell was prominent in the first two Tests but he does not have Dallaglio's line-out presence. Deprived for the most part of the option of throwing to the tail, the Lions' line-out was severely compromised. And predictable. And the Wallabies proceeded to climb all over Johnson and Danny Grewcock with double marking. With the line-out in trouble, the Lions failed to exploit the attacking edge of Brian O'Driscoll and Jason Robinson.

Then there was the goal-kicking of Wilkinson. For England his strike-rate is not far short of 100 per cent; in Australia it wasn't much more than 60 per cent. The leg injury which saw him taken off on a stretcher in the second Test did nothing to improve his confidence.

The loss of Richard Hill was another big blow. He was taken out with an elbow by Nathan Grey which was not only head-high but off the ball. David Gray, the citing commissioner from New Zealand, saw no cause for action, which was one of the more extraordinary decisions of the tour.

However, the Lions could not yell too loudly from the moral high ground after Quinnell and Rob Henderson had hit Stephen Larkham high and late in the same match, putting the stand-off out of the third Test.

In the extracurricular category were the forays into broadsheet journalism of Matt Dawson and Austin Healey, the former criticising the style of the Lions management, the latter almost everything Australian, including the new second-row Justin Harrison. You may not agree with what they said, but you could argue they had a right to say it.

What was indefensible was the timing of the outbursts, Dawson's on the eve of the first Test, Healey's on the eve of the decider. Had Clive Woodward been in charge he would have sent them home. It became open season for the snipers but, as Henry pointed out: "You always get people who grizzle on a tour like this and they tend to come from the ranks of those who aren't in the Test team."

The New Zealander, the first coach to oversee a Lions series defeat Down Under, added: "I think the newspaper comments had an importance. The team should come first, and those who choose to criticise people within the group are not doing what they should be doing. It is a question of personal judgement, and mine is that you don't want to destroy the fabric of your own team. I'm amazed that a player should have given the opposition the ammunition they needed. I'm not sure what Austin thought he was trying to achieve, but effectively it was a free team-talk for the Wallabies."

Naturally Harrison, described by Healey as an "ape", looked in the third Test like the King of the Jungle. The Lions management failed in their bid to vet the players' columns, but then everybody was also aware that Henry was writing a book, and if the examples of Glenn Hoddle and Mark James are anything to go by, it is not the wisest course of action.

In the postscript, Henry and the manager, Donal Lenihan, envisage changes to the structure of future tours. "It may be that the way forward is to take a smaller group of players, 28 rather than 37, and play fewer games, perhaps three warm-up matches followed by three Tests," Henry said. "The midweek matches in Australia were particularly difficult and I felt sorry for the players involved. They had to put up with inadequate preparation and it was unfair. These are professionals who are used to building properly through the week for a weekend match. We couldn't offer them that because of the itinerary. Where, in the professional era, are we going to find the time to prepare a Lions party as thoroughly as we would like?"

The problem was exacerbated in Australia because, with only three Super 12 teams, some of the matches were one-sided affairs against amateurs. The itineraries for the next Lions tours, to New Zealand in 2005 and South Africa four years after that, will not be as unbalanced.

And the Lions have become a huge commercial proposition. Teams want to play against them and people want to watch them, not least from these shores. In the interim, the International Board are pushing ahead with an annual match between the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere. It is designed to raise funds for the poorer members of the Board, but it is also yet another fixture in a list already suffering from overkill.

"There are a number of masters out there now, clubs, national teams, the Lions, and I'm not at all sure how we can balance them all," Henry said. "Without some amalgamation of the season we are never going to achieve the ideal. But this is a rugby argument and rugby comes second these days."

As for the Wallabies, they are already making plans for the defence of the World Cup Down Under in 2003 with the appointment of Eddie Jones, the Brumbies coach, as successor to Rod Macqueen. You can also expect to see Pat Howard, who didn't see eye to eye with Macqueen, rejoining the gold cause. What price Healey, who is facing a fine when he returns from holiday, making the trip to Australia in two years' time?