Limping Lions out to avoid a blackwash

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The Independent Online

"We didn't have any message telling us what had happened," said Andy Robinson, the Lions' assistant coach, yesterday as he reflected on the bombings in London. "We just sat there and watched the developments on television. We were stunned, all of us. When you witness this sort of sadness in life, it puts sport in its proper perspective."

Having lost the Tests in Christchurch and Wellington, the Lions probably anticipated a subdued build-up to today's final match at Eden Park - the last, barely audible knockings of an adventure that effectively petered out a week ago when the All Blacks scored five tries and almost 50 points in a record victory over a touring team from the British Isles. This, though, was almost too solemn for words.

"No one has mentioned anything about not wanting to play, so we'll play," Robinson said. "There is a prize still there for us, in the sense that we'd like to prove ourselves capable of winning a Test in New Zealand. There is one game left, there is a strong spirit amongst the squad and the players selected are proud to have been chosen. Life goes on, even in circumstances such as these. We live for the next day, as always."

It is to be hoped that Robinson was right in his assessment, for if the Lions do not drag every last ounce of desire from their exhausted souls today, things could get very messy indeed. The All Blacks have lost five players of the highest quality over the last fortnight - Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw, the best operators in the world in their respective positions, plus Leon MacDonald, Aaron Mauger and Carl Hayman - but perhaps alone among the great rugby nations of the world, they can absorb losses of personnel with barely a negative thought.

Graham Henry, with whom Robinson worked on the last Lions tour four years ago, was full of confidence in respect of his remodelled New Zealand team. Speaking of Rodney So'oialo, the No 8 from Wellington who has been shifted to the breakaway position to fill the gap left by the injured McCaw, he said: "Rodney is the same height, the same weight and quicker than McCaw. Who knows? He might even be better. He'll lead the pack, which gives him another new challenge." If So'oialo lives up to that billing, God help us all.

Tana Umaga, the home captain and probably the single most influential figure in this series, chose another tack. "How do we motivate ourselves with the series already won? We'll bring it down to personal standards," he responded. "We aim high in this team and no one involved with the All Blacks wants to drop off their level. We rely on each other for motivation, and on the fact that we want to win every Test. Regarding this game, it's about isolating the Test from the series."

On the evidence thus far, the Lions cannot talk in All Black terms, let alone deliver a performance in which their hosts might recognise something of themselves. Robinson, never one to let serious inadequacies interfere with his belief that all games of rugby are there to be won, has been heard to say that the Wellington Test, lost by the small margin of 48-18, could have been turned around had the tourists maximised their opportunities in the opening quarter, but whenever these Lions have met really serious opposition on this trip, they have been found wanting in terms of pace, power, skill and adventure.

Who has it within him to make a difference today? Here, in the most forbidding of the New Zealand venues - a stadium where the All Blacks have not lost since 1994, when the French won in injury time with Jean-Luc Sadourny's celebrated "try from the end of the earth"? To stand an earthly of prevailing, the Lions will require ground-breaking performances from the players who form the spine of the team, from the newly promoted Geordan Murphy at full-back to the exciting Ryan Jones at No 8, via the Welsh half-backs Stephen Jones and Dwayne Peel and the outsized English hooker Steve Thompson.

But many of these people are on their last legs. Perhaps unprecedentedly, the Irish centre Gordon D'Arcy passed up the chance of a first Test cap because he felt too tired to train in the wake of the narrow victory over Auckland on Tuesday.

"Gordon is pretty beaten-up all round," reported his national coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, who has been preparing the backs for the élite team. "It was Gordon's call and it was a big one, but I'm OK with it. He could have said nothing, been chosen, underperformed and let the team down. For this last game, we need people who feel fresh."

As O'Sullivan said, a 2-1 Test defeat would be a whole lot better than a blackwash. The 1966 and 1983 Lions vintages both found themselves on the wrong end of a clean sweep in these parts and are remembered less than fondly as a result. There is a distinct possibility that these Lions will go the same way. In fact, it is difficult to find anyone in this country prepared to bet against it.

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