Quiet man Hodgson to state Test case

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Hodgson plays against Auckland at Eden Park today in the knowledge that another strong performance of the kind he produced against Taranaki, Otago and Manawatu may just push him within touching distance of the élite squad and, by logical extension, give him a chance of a Test cap at the same venue on Saturday. Wilkinson, meanwhile, is still being assessed by the Lions medical staff, having been led gently from the field in Wellington three days ago. If he is declared fit, Sir Clive Woodward will be sorely tempted to pick him.

It is patently obvious that Woodward should resist that temptation, for Wilkinson's sake as much as the team's. The man is not in particularly good shape - for all his courage in adversity in the second Test, he was a pale shadow of the outside-half who kicked England to victory in this country two years ago - while Hodgson deserves a place in the weekend squad. Assuming he leaves his now customary mark on the final midweek match of this disappointing trip, it will be an affront to natural justice if he is not promoted.

"I haven't really thought about the Test position all tour," he said yesterday after a bout of kicking practice at one of the more forbidding stadiums in world rugby. "I knew at the start of the trip that I was way down the pecking order. In those circumstances, there was nothing for it but to attempt to take whatever opportunities came my way. I hope I've done that. I hope I've made selection difficult, that I've at least made it awkward for the coaches to pick other people for the Tests."

To be blunt, Hodgson has long been viewed - and continues to be viewed, in all probability - as a defensive liability. Hence the obsession with a semi-fit, under-prepared Wilkinson. But the stand-off from Sale believes his tackling has improved immeasurably since he toured New Zealand with England a year ago and played in both Tests.

"That's been an ongoing thing," he said. "I've made the odd mistake in defence on this tour but generally speaking, I feel I've made a massive improvement in that area of my game. I believe I'm mentally stronger, too. I've taken a lot of stick this past year and it's made me thicker-skinned. I find it easier to take the knocks."

The Lions will reveal their hand for the third Test tomorrow, once the fitness issues surrounding Wilkinson and his fellow midfielder, the Welsh centre Gavin Henson, have been clarified. Unlike last week, when Shane Williams and Donncha O'Callaghan were promoted to the Saturday side on the strength of their contribution to the sporting massacre perpetrated on Manawatu, there appear to be precious few serious contenders this time. Hodgson and Geordan Murphy? Certainly. Gordon Bulloch and Simon Shaw? Perhaps.

Such thoughts are still 24 hours away, however. Auckland, by far the most potent non-Test opponents on the itinerary with the obvious exception of the New Zealand Maori, have a long tradition of success against Lions teams and with Eden Park expecting a capacity audience of more than 45,000, the immediate challenge is more than a little intimidating, especially as Pat Lam, the provincial coach, has included players of the calibre of Joe Rokocoko, Ben Atiga and Saimone Taumoepeau, hot from the Junior All Blacks' tour of Australia.

Meanwhile, the senior All Blacks have summoned the centre Luke McAlister and the hooker Corey Flynn, both of whom played influential roles for the Maori in their victory over the Lions in Hamilton. McAlister is covering the midfield position vacated by the injured Aaron Mauger, while Flynn has been added because of a knee injury suffered by Derren Witcombe.

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS (v Auckland at Eden Park, kick-off 8.10am BST; Live Sky Sports 1): G Murphy (Leicester and Ireland); M Cueto (Sale and England), G D'Arcy (Leinster and Ireland), W Greenwood (Harlequins and England), D Hickie (Leinster and Ireland); C Hodgson (Sale and England), M Dawson (Wasps and England); G Rowntree (Leicester and England), G Bulloch (Glasgow and Scotland, capt), J Hayes (Munster and Ireland), S Shaw (Wasps and England), B Kay (Leicester and England), J White (Leicester and England), M Williams (Cardiff Blues and Wales), M Owen (Newport Gwent Dragons and Wales). Replacements: A Titterrell (Sale and England), M Stevens (Bath and England), B Cockbain (Ospreys and Wales), M Corry (Leicester and England), C Cusiter (Borders and Scotland), R O'Gara (Munster and Ireland), S Horgan (Leinster and Ireland).

Auckland: B Ward; I Nacewa, B Atiga, S Tuitupou, J Rokocoko; T Lavea, S Devine; S Taumoepeau, S Telefoni, J Afoa, B Mika, B Williams, J Collins (capt), D Braid, A MacDonald.

Comments