I'm good enough to be in Test side, says Henson after saving Lions from ridicule Henson after try double rescues Lions

Southland 16 - Lions 26
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The local cognoscenti reckoned the Lions might beat Southland, by far the weakest of their opponents in the run-up to the Test series with the All Blacks, by something in the region of 100 points. They were only 90 out.

The local cognoscenti reckoned the Lions might beat Southland, by far the weakest of their opponents in the run-up to the Test series with the All Blacks, by something in the region of 100 points. They were only 90 out.

Nothing, but nothing could have prepared Sir Clive Woodward and the rest of the tour management for the degree of ineptitude displayed by the midweek dirt-trackers yesterday, and had it not been for Gavin Henson, who would not have been here at all had there been any justice in the world, they would almost certainly have suffered their most humiliating defeat in more than a decade.

Henson, cruelly omitted from the élite squad for this weekend's big game in Christchurch, scored both Lions tries, one in each half, to save the red-shirted crème de la crème of British Isles rugby from curdling before our very eyes, and it was no more than he deserved. His performance at inside centre was a triumph of application over disappointment - as courageous as it was accomplished, as committed as it was proud. Indeed, it may turn out to be the making of him as an international sportsman.

Not that he saw things in so positive a light afterwards. "It will be an awesome occasion on Saturday," he said, "and I'm just sorry I'm not going to be involved. I don't know whether I'll feature in any of the Test matches, but I believe I'm good enough to be in the side. Unless there is an injury or a loss somewhere along the line, I'm not sure I'll get back in.

"Not that I want the Test team to lose, of course. We all want to win here. It's just that the bad news hurt me a lot."

Those Lions supporters who made the long trip to New Zealand's deep south - and there were many of them - were almost as pained by some of the things they witnessed. The sight of Ronan O'Gara kicking a penalty in the fifth minute of injury time to put the tourists out of reach once and for all was close to excruciating. There again, there had been plenty of agony prior to the Irishman's coup de grâce, if such a desperate kick can be so described. There were turnovers galore, dropped passes by the gross and decision-making of such spectacular incompetence that it beggared belief.

"Maybe the errors were down to the heavy dew; maybe some of them weren't concentrating too hard; maybe there were some disappointed players out there as a result of the Test selection," said Simon Culhane, the Southland coach. "I'd be pretty concerned if I was them, but they weren't all bad. Henson surprised me with his strength on the ball. He's a handful for any midfield close to the line, a quality player." Not quality enough, apparently.

He was not entirely alone. Lewis Moody's energetic work at the re-starts wounded Southland in more ways than one - when he clattered their flanker, the wonderfully named Hale T-Pole, it was a clear case of T-Poleaxed - and there were some neat touches from the locks, Simon Shaw and Donncha O'Callaghan.

When the heavy mob appeared after T-Pole's equalising try on 46 minutes, both Andy Sheridan and Tom Shanklin did their level best to crank up the temperature. Ultimately, though, there was precious little to dignify the Lions' contribution.

They were 10 points to the good inside a dozen minutes, O'Gara nailing an early penalty and Henson putting the finishing touches to a sustained attack by wrong-footing Faolua Muliaina and claiming the try with a muscular charge to the line. Unaccountably, the Lions then lost their shape and structure. As Gareth Jenkins, the forwards coach, remarked: "We appeared to decide to play catch-up rugby from in front, after a quarter of an hour's play."

Jenkins must have been more staggered still when T-Pole won a line-out near the Lions line, joined the back of one of Southland's trademark driving mauls and claimed his try with a rip of the ball and a celebratory plunge over the whitewash. Had the home team scored next they might well have recorded a victory to set alongside their wins in 1950 and 1966, for Jimmy Cowan, outstanding at scrum-half, had the scent of a kill in his nostrils.

To their credit, it was the Lions who responded some six minutes later. Sheridan's iron strength at close quarters gave them some forward momentum at a maul in the Southland 22 and after Martyn Williams had carried the ball virtually to the line, Henson took possession at pace as play switched to the right and was again too strong for Muliaina. Two more penalties from O'Gara drew a line under the affair. A sorry affair if ever there was one.

Southland: J Wilson; M Harrison, B Milne, F Muliaina, W Lotawa; R Apanui, J Cowan; C Dermody (capt), J Rutledge, A Dempsey, H Macdonald, D Quate, H Tamariki, H T-Pole, P Miller. Replacements: J Wright for Miller, 40; J Murch for Dempsey, 56; D Hall for Rutledge, 59; P Te Whare for Milne, 62; R Logan for Tamariki, 80; A Clarke for Cowan, 80.

LIONS: G Murphy (Leicester and Ireland); M Cueto (Sale and England), O Smith (Leicester and England), G Henson (Ospreys and Wales), D Hickie (Leinster and Ireland); R O'Gara (Munster and Ireland), G Cooper (Newport-Gwent Dragons and Wales); M Stevens (Bath and England), A Titterrell (Sale and England), J Hayes (Munster and Ireland), S Shaw (Wasps and England), D O'Callaghan (Munster and Ireland), L Moody (Leicester and England), M Williams (Cardiff Blues and Wales), M Owen (Newport-Gwent Dragons and Wales, capt).

Replacements: A Sheridan (Sale and England) for Stevens, h-t; T Shanklin (Cardiff Blues and Wales) for Smith, 49; C Cusiter (Borders and Scotland) for Cooper, 49; G Bulloch (Glasgow and Scotland) for Titterrell, 49; S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets and Ireland) for Owen 68; G D'Arcy (Leinster and Ireland) for Murphy, 80.

Referee: K Deaker (New Zealand).