Lions swamped by All Black deluge

<preform>NEW ZEALAND 21 </br> Tries: Williams, Sivivatu </br> Con: Carter </br> Pens: Carter 3 </br> BRITISH &amp; IRISH LIONS&#009;3 </br> Pen: Wilkinson</preform>
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The Independent Online

Nobody was of a mind to believe it, given the scale of the shellacking suffered by Sir Clive Woodward's team as New Zealand's bleak midwinter finally came slashing in off the ocean and blew them away on a force-10 gale by the name of Hurricane Umaga. But there it was in bold print on the official statistics sheet: the tourists made precisely nine errors in the first Test against the All Blacks. Nine? There were almost that many in selection. They'll be telling us next that the Lions' line-out was not as bad as it looked.

Nobody was of a mind to believe it, given the scale of the shellacking suffered by Sir Clive Woodward's team as New Zealand's bleak midwinter finally came slashing in off the ocean and blew them away on a force-10 gale by the name of Hurricane Umaga. But there it was in bold print on the official statistics sheet: the tourists made precisely nine errors in the first Test against the All Blacks. Nine? There were almost that many in selection. They'll be telling us next that the Lions' line-out was not as bad as it looked.

Of course, it was every bit as bad as it looked, if not worse. Everything was as bad as it looked, from Brian O'Driscoll's shoulder and Richard Hill's knee to Shane Byrne's marksmanship and Jason Robinson's profound misunderstanding of, and unsuitability for, the role of full-back. Wherever the massed ranks of Lions support cast its collective eye on Saturday, there was something horribly amiss.

Byrne, picked for the accuracy of his throwing-in, could not have hit a cow's behind with a double bass; Ben Kay, so far out of form for so long that he should never have been considered for this game, was little more than a sheep in sheep's clothing; poor Robinson, his mind elsewhere, was half the man of four years ago, when he last appeared in the red shirt of the four-nation collective. You might say that at the Jade Stadium, he was every other inch a world-class rugby player.

Do not, even for a second, lay the Lions' collapse at the door of the calamities they suffered on the injury front, important though O'Driscoll and Hill were to the cause. It would be akin to blaming the weather for the outbreak of the Second World War. The tourists hit the canvas with a resounding thud because they were deficient in every department, with the possible exception of the scrum. And even though they managed parity there, it was tantamount to a defeat. They had gone into the match not merely expecting supremacy at the set-piece, but presuming it.

Woodward went hunting for positives afterwards, and duly found one in a defensive performance that restricted a rampant, possession-gorged All Black side to a couple of tries, when they might have been expected to accumulate half a dozen. To be sure, there were courageous efforts from Jonny Wilkinson, Gareth Thomas and Ryan Jones, plus a monumental one from Martin Corry. Paul O'Connell also put his shoulder to the wheel, although both he and the Lions paid for an overt lack of discipline.

It is a truism with Woodward that, in public at least, he could find encouragement in an outbreak of plague. In his heart of hearts, though, he must have felt very low as he convened an emergency meeting of his coaches to discuss the whys and wherefores of this reverse. Down near the earth's core, in all probability. After 10 months of planning - some of his more trenchant critics, who are now emerging like dry rot from the woodwork, openly accuse him of picking his Test team as long ago as last Christmas - his tour of duty as Lions coach has suddenly entered the realm of crisis management.

When his chief lieutenant, the England coach Andy Robinson, volunteered the thought that this had been a "rough day at the office", he was not exaggerating. The office would have run more smoothly had David Brent been in charge of it. The line-out malfunction was so serious that Ali Williams and Chris Jack, the All Black locks, were nearing double figures on the plunder front long before close of play. One of those steals resulted in Williams' opening try on the half-hour, a depressingly straightforward head-down-and-charge score that put the home side 11-0 ahead - the equivalent of a 20-point margin in normal climatic conditions.

The conditions were anything but normal. There were high winds, there was driving rain, there was snow. The temperature was close to freezing. Theoretically, the weather should have suited the Lions' forward power and close-quarter strategy, but in the event, it played into the hands of Tana Umaga, the All Black captain, and his like-minded brethren. Umaga was quite marvellous, notwithstanding the dark suspicions lingering over his role in O'Driscoll's immediate departure with a dislocated shoulder, and it was entirely appropriate that he should have manufactured the second try, completed in a style bordering on brilliant by Sitiveni Sivivatu, shortly after the interval.

All Black rugby is never less than assertive, give or take the odd World Cup misfire on foreign fields. On New Zealand soil, especially in the barely breachable fortresses of the South Island, it is utterly secure in its assumption of supremacy. The likes of Umaga, Justin Marshall, Keven Mealamu and the uniquely rapacious Richie McCaw were as giants compared to their opposite numbers. Genuinely big men like Jack and Williams were nothing short of ogreish. Try as they might - and for all their deficiencies, there was no shortage of effort - the Lions found themselves hopelessly out-muscled, as well as out-paced and out-thought.

Perhaps Steve Hansen, once coach of Wales and now the forwards specialist in Graham Henry's all-star back-room team, encapsulated the spirit of the moment better than anyone.

"We felt the Lions considered their tight forwards to be a strength," he said. "Like any strength, it must be attacked. We set out to take away their strength." Then, after a brief pause, and with a glint in his eye, he added: "Or should I say, their perceived strength."

That, ultimately, was the bitter lesson of events in Canterbury at the weekend. If the Lions thought they could bring the All Blacks to their knees with a powerhouse scrum and a big kicking game, they were soon thinking again.

"If you don't have the ball at this level, you finish second," Woodward pronounced. Correct. But he forgot the second part of the equation, which goes like this: "If you don't do something with the ball once you have it, you'll finish second anyway."

NEW ZEALAND: L MacDonald (Canterbury); D Howlett (Auckland), T Umaga (Wellington, capt), A Mauger (Canterbury), S Sivivatu (Waikato); D Carter (Canterbury), J Marshall (Canterbury); T Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), C Hayman (Otago), C Jack (Canterbury), A Williams (Auckland), J Collins (Wellington), R McCaw (Canterbury), R So'oialo (Wellington). Replacements: B Kelleher (Waikato) for Marshall, 70; G Somerville (Canterbury) for Woodcock, 70; M Muliaina (Auckland) for MacDonald, 72; R Gear (Nelson Bays) for Umaga, 79; D Witcombe (Auckland) for Mealamu, 79; S Lauaki (Waikato) for Collins, 80.

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS: J Robinson (England); J Lewsey (England), B O'Driscoll (Ireland, capt), J Wilkinson (England), G Thomas (Wales); S Jones (Wales), D Peel (Wales); G Jenkins (Wales), S Byrne (Ireland), J White (England), P O'Connell (Ireland), B Kay (England), R Hill (England), N Back (England), M Corry (England). Replacements: W Greenwood (England) for O'Driscoll, 2; R Jones (Wales) for Hill, 23; S Horgan (Ireland) for Robinson, 58; S Thompson (England) for Byrne, 58; D Grewcock (England) for Kay, 58; M Dawson (England) for Peel, 77.

Referee: J Jutge (France).

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