Just for once, the British and Irish Lions found themselves yesterday on the positive end of some news from Otago, home to the stadium known as the "House of Pain" and one of the more dangerous provincial teams in New Zealand.
Anton Oliver, the tough local hooker and captain who inspired the All Blacks to some frighteningly good performances in Europe late last year, will miss the opening Test next weekend after failing to recover from the calf problem that has been troubling him for the best part of two months.
"I guess that's a blow to the New Zealanders," said Sir Clive Woodward, the Lions coach, as he confirmed his side for the game tomorrow with Otago in Dunedin - a side containing precisely none of those Test contenders, most notably Jason Robinson and Jonny Wilkinson, who looked short of form during the midweek victory over Wellington.
"We're finding ourselves up against quality players wherever we go on this tour, but Oliver is a pretty influential bloke for the All Blacks." Keven Mealamu of Auckland is now the hot favourite to play in the middle of the front row.
The good folk of Otago, well used to beating the Lions after celebrating five wins in their past eight fixtures with the tourists, generated some negative vibes, too. Most of them came from the provincial coach, Wayne Graham, who lambasted Woodward and company for their general approach to this trip and threw a few insults at the players for good measure.
"From a coaching-selection position, it must be a nightmare trying to give everyone enough rugby," Graham said. "One of the keys in any team is continuity and getting guys playing together on a regular basis. I don't think the swapping and changing and mixing up is doing the Lions' cause any good. It's an issue they must be thinking about."
He went on to accuse the tourists of "referee manipulation", which sounded almost like a criminal offence. "It's been an eye-opener," he said, not unreasonably considering his choice of words. "Those not involved in the contact area are suggesting to the referee what he should be deciding, and that's something we in New Zealand are not allowed to get away with. There's a lot of yap from all directions about what should and should not be happening. And let's face it, their game at scrum-time is about disruption. They pull every trick they know."
If all this was par for the course - barely a day goes by on a modern Lions tour without the visitors receiving flak for one perceived misdemeanour or another - Woodward's choice of the final Saturday line-up before the first Test was unusual indeed. The coach insisted that a number of the players for tomorrow would "clearly be involved in the Test team", but the main body of the side most people expect to take on the All Blacks - from Josh Lewsey at full-back to Martin Corry at No 8 via the likes of Gavin Henson, Dwayne Peel, Julian White, Paul O'Connell and Richard Hill - will not be on duty at Carisbrook.
On the vexed subject of Wilkinson, who has played so little rugby in recent weeks and months, the coach would not be drawn. "I have no policy on Jonny," he said. "I have no policy on anyone, come to that. We're playing it as we see it, from game to game."
Woodward expressed his disappointment with those media outlets that pedalled an erroneous story about alleged punch-ups between players during training. Reports that Gordon Bulloch, the Scottish hooker, and John Hayes, the Irish prop, clashed during a practice session were dismissed when the tourists revealed that the incident resulted from an accidental clash of heads during a public team run in Christchurch.Reuse content