Welcome to the real world. The Lions' tour of New Zealand accelerated into previously uncharted territory at the Waikato Stadium yesterday and it was the Maori, positively dripping emotion as they sought to mark the departures of their coach, Matt Te Pou, and their iconic outside-half, Carlos Spencer, with a first victory over British Isles opposition, who moved the faster and stood the taller. Theirs was the moment and never was a moment more deserved, for the Lions were beaten by a significantly better side.
The tourists hurled themselves at their hosts in the final few minutes and their captain, Brian O'Driscoll, continued his recent habit of rescuing a scratchy individual performance with a blinding try out of nothing, dragging them within range with a score under the sticks with 60 seconds of normal time remaining. Stephen Jones converted to reduce the deficit to a mere six points, but the magnificent Maori flankers, Jono Gibbes and Marty Holah, were in no mood to be denied. Gibbes raided the Lions line-out, Holah stripped the Lions of possession on the floor and when Piri Weepu, the little scrum-half from Wellington, hoofed the ball off the field at the sound of the match-closing hooter, all hell broke loose among the 31,000 crowd.
Had the Lions pinched it at the death, it would have been something close to a travesty of justice. Sir Clive Woodward, the head coach, was man enough to admit as much afterwards. Even so, Woodward minimised his side's chances of escaping this muggers' alley intact by getting his front-row strategy wrong.
After an opening 20 minutes of extra-ordinary ferocity, the Lions' heavyweight front row of Andrew Sheridan, Steve Thompson and Julian White exerted a degree of authority at the scrummage, but when Sheridan was packed off to the sin-bin for flinging a haymaker at Luke McAlister shortly before the interval, they forfeited that control. Inexplicably, the Lions coaches decided to stick with Gethin Jenkins, his replacement, rather than reintroduce Sheridan at the conclusion of his penance, thereby shooting themselves in both feet.
There was no convincing justification of this decision during the post-mortem, Woodward saying only that he had planned to replace the inexperienced Sheridan at some point and figured that he might as well do it there and then. But Sheridan and White had been among the very few shining lights during their time together, and the backroom staff will have to carry the can for not realising it.
By contrast, the Maori got their replacements absolutely right, and the best call of all saw Spencer take the field early in the second half. In an instant, the threat to the Lions tripled as he teased and tormented his midfield opponents with a characteristic mix of offloads, cut-out passes and grubber kicks. It was "King Carlos" who forced the Lions on to the back foot sufficiently to earn Luke McAlister a simple penalty shot, the centre putting his side 9-6 up on 52 minutes, and it was he who orchestrated the wonderfully complex move that ended with Leon MacDonald's pivotal try at the beginning of the final quarter.
It was a stunning attack, launched from a line-out near the Lions' left corner. From the moment Spencer found Rua Tipoki with a perfectly weighted pass across a thicket of dummy runners, the try was on. MacDonald, back in the All Black frame after a spell in Japan, suddenly materialised in a metre of space, and after breaking through Tom Shanklin's tackle, he wrestled his way to the line to complete a finish of the highest quality. McAlister made sure of the extras to give the Maori a 10-point lead.
That lead was extended when the centre Gordon D'Arcy was penalised for a dangerous tackle on Tipoki. D'Arcy had been wallowing around in purgatory for most of the game - he suffered a cut on the head midway through the first half, and on returning to the field after treatment he received a headmasterly warning from the referee, Steve Walsh, for stamping at one of the more heated rucks of the night. This third calamity was the most costly, though, for McAlister landed a right-sided penalty to leave the Lions 19-6 down and a long way up the Waikato River without a paddle between them.
They fought hard enough; indeed, some of their defensive work bordered on the epic. But their line-out functioned only intermittently, they were outthought in midfield and, most importantly, they were thoroughly creamed at the breakdown. Gibbes, a leader of considerable stature even by All Black standards, was a stand-out figure despite a serious ankle injury; Holah was something else again. Towards the end, he dragged Matt Dawson to earth by his shirt-tails as the scrum-half scampered into the danger zone, then bounced back on to his feet, wrapped his hands around the ball and secured the penalty decision that slammed the door on the Lions.
That door was one of considerable proportions and over the next week or so, a number of big-name Lions will find themselves on the wrong side of it. Woodward and company have an awful lot of thinking to do, for the first Test in Christchurch is less than a fortnight away. Gibbes and Holah will not start, because the All Blacks believe they have better options in both positions. If that is not frightening for the tourists, what is?Reuse content