Only Test victory can win back All Blacks' respect

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The Independent Online

There is sometimes the finest line between contempt and, worse still, pity, but the All Black feelings towards the British and Irish Lions could hardly be painted in less subtle brush-strokes. For the moment at least you have to settle for contempt.

An explosion of try-scoring yesterday against a skeletal Manawatu, with the attack led by Shane Williams, a Welshman who previously appeared to have as much chance of making the Test team as scaling the other side of the moon, might just provoke a sliver of reappraisal. But then anything like traditional regard for the historic foe is still a long and tumultuous journey away.

Record-scoring in the "boonies" could never have been enough to shake the reasserted New Zealand belief in their absolute superiority. For the Lions there is only one option - victory here at the "Cake Tin" stadium on Saturday in the second Test. It is - the All Black hierarchy have made clear - the only acceptable downpayment on that old respect.

The dismissal by the New Zealand coach, Graham Henry, of the Lions' "spin-doctoring" in the wake of their crushing defeat in the first Test and the controversial loss of their captain, Brian O'Driscoll, has been progressively obvious since last Saturday in Christchurch, but here in his seafront headquarters he left the cruellest jibe to his forwards' coach, Steve Hansen.

Hansen, who like Henry played a key role in the renaissance of Welsh rugby that ended with last season's Six Nations Grand Slam, was asked if the injury to O'Driscoll meant a certain call from the Lions coach, Sir Clive Woodward, to another potential Welsh virtuoso Gavin Henson for the next Test.

"I don't know what's he's going to do," said Hansen, "and I'm not sure he knows what he's going to do."

Henry had been at pains to point out that his squad still held the Lions players in great respect - and that complacency could be a problem in settling the series - but as his assistant went for the jugular, he smiled sardonically. It was the smile of a man who felt the battle might just be over.

This certainly is the belief of David Kirk, who led the All Blacks to their only World Cup triumph in 1987 and is just of one a whole queue of legendary New Zealand players lining up here to fire at the meaning of the biggest, most heavily financed touring party in the history of the Lions.

Woodward's attack on the conduct of the All Black captain, Tana Umaga, who with the hooker Keven Mealamu threw down O'Driscoll in the incident that left the Lions captain with a dislocated shoulder and a spectator's role for the rest of the tour, has been painted by Kirk as evidence of a loss of nerve - a flailing and unsuccessful attempt to distract attention from the bankruptcy of his team's display and the loss of credibility in his selections.

Kirk said: "Attacking the All Blacks captain when you're one Test down is the last thing you should do, even if his team played as badly as his did - because it will only serve to galvanise New Zealand further. Woodward is struggling under the pressure of coaching a mediocre side, which is ironic after him saying that New Zealand were carrying all the pressure.

"Coaches and managers can obviously have their opinions but spitting the dummy in public about an independent and impartial judicial decision, even if he thinks he got it wrong, is disrespectful and just shows how much pressure Woodward is under. It's a serious blunder and shows how much he is struggling."

All this could be written in the clearest shades of black - and an extremely pallid red - but for the O'Driscoll issue. Was he "speared" in a way that could have left him in the company of 84 New Zealand rugby players have been left as paraplegics by dangerous tackling? Henry is emphatic that Umaga and Mealamu had no premeditated plans to target O'Driscoll and put him out of the game, and still less the tour, and that what the Lions captain suffered was not a spearing but a malignant piece of rugby chance. But he did agree that "spearing" was a serious issue, a point he had acknowledged many times. He also said that the entire All Black squad and coaches felt great sympathy for O'Driscoll, and that the captain, Umaga, would express that in in his own time - and in his own way.

Meanwhile, yes, said Henry, he was sure that the Lions' spin doctors - he has still not deigned to mention Alastair Campbell, the Lions press officer and former right-hand man of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair - would continue to ride the issue for all it was worth. He found this "very disappointing."

Even the outbreak of Lions scoring - and what seemed like genuinely rediscovered relish for the game in previously no-hope contenders like Williams, Gordon Darcy and Geordan Murphy and Ronan O'Gara up the road in Palmerston North - could not staunch All Black criticism of Woodward's overall strategy.

Henry dwelt on his respect for the quality of talent in the Lions line-up, praised the fire and the optimism of the Welsh players - and even conceded that Woodward's own supreme achievement in winning the World Cup on the basis of forward power and the kicking of Jonny Wilkinson, was an act that had not been entirely overtaken by the pace and skill of, say, his own All Black team. The knock on his rival, he suggested, was that something on a par with the World Cup feat could not be reproduced here with so many ageing Englishmen, picked at the expense of younger and maybe more dynamic talent from outside his chosen circle.

Of all that talent, none blazed so coruscatingly yesterday than that of Williams, who made the All Blacks think in the World Cup 18 months ago. Whether he can do it again in a few days' time is just one question facing Woodward. Maybe the most haunting of all is whether he can, in terms of his own reputation, win now whatever he does.