Two matches into the itinerary, and the standards are already spiralling downwards. By narrowly failing to register a second successive three-figure victory over non-Super 12 opposition here in northern Queensland yesterday, the British and Irish Lions allowed their points average to slip to a mere 99.5 per match, and their try count to a modest 15 per outing or, if you like, one every five minutes. Graham Henry, Martin Johnson and company will barely be able to sleep at night.
It is difficult to take this second full Lions' tour of Australia seriously just at the moment, thanks to the iniquities of a fixture list that provided the visitors with an initial helping of cannon fodder, followed by opponents who curled up and died the moment they were confronted with a deficit of more than 10 points. If the élite Queensland state players do not stack up in Brisbane on Saturday, some penetrating questions will be asked of Australian rugby's ability to sustain an oval-ball invasion on this scale.
The tourists played some wonderful rugby fast, direct, ruthless during the second half of the contest at the small but perfectly formed Dairy Farmer's Stadium, high up on the east coast in sub-tropical redneck country. Jason Robinson, the rugby league renegade whose claims of unfamiliarity with the finer points of the union code are becoming less convincing by the day, scored five tries, four of them in the final quarter, to finish his Lions debut a whisker behind two 24-carat British wings of yesteryear, David Duckham of England and JJ Williams of Wales, both of whom managed six in one match during their red-shirted heyday. Another three went to Rob Henderson, the barrel-chested Irish centre. "Not so bad for a night's work," he beamed.
However, it was deeply disconcerting to witness a professional outfit from these parts, albeit a young one, turn up their toes having spent the opening 40 minutes giving their illustrious opponents an old-fashioned hurry-up. At the break, the Lions were only four points to the good at 10-6. Their line-out had been calamitous, their midfield distribution imprecise and their shaping of the game laughably inept. Tom Smith, a first-choice Test loose head in South Africa four years ago, had struggled to hold the ousted Wallaby Fletcher Dyson in the early set-pieces, and was transparently ill at ease.
Yet a half-time rollicking from Henry and a close-range score from the impressive Colin Charvis within a minute of the restart left the Invitation team struggling to relocate their bearings, and when Shane Drahm missed a penalty that would at least have kept them in touch, they blew a collective gasket in the technical and tactical departments. Sixty seconds later, Martyn Williams stripped the ball from a defensive maul, Matt Perry selected the optimum counter-attacking angle and Robinson was away down the left touchline without a care in the world. Suddenly, the Lions were virtually out of sight at 22-6. By the end, the Australians would have needed a telescope to track them down.
Robinson's night mirrored that of the Lions in general. In the first half, he looked over-anxious and under-prepared: he ran up culs-de-sac, conceded penalties for failing to release on the floor and suffered the rare humiliation of being dump-tackled by Scott Fava, the high-quality Queensland flanker. Once the game had broken up, though, he looked a world-beater a finisher to die for. "If you miss a tackle or cough up turnover ball for the opposition, you have to learn from it," he said. "It's not a matter of never falling, but of rising every time you fall." Quite the philosopher, our Jason.
While Henry was suitably excited by Robinson's quintet of five-pointers, he was even more taken with Charvis and Williams, the two Welsh breakaways. Charvis, in particular, looked every inch a Lion pumped-up, fearless, as tough as old boots and will undoubtedly challenge for a Test berth, irrespective of whether Lawrence Dallaglio's knee permits the celebrated Wasp a run of active service over the next week or so. At the start of the tour, the pundits identified scrum-half and lock as the logjam areas. After 160 minutes of rugby, the three back-row positions are also looking more congested than the M25 in rush hour.
And what of Austin Healey, whose delicious little cameo yesterday presented the coaching staff with still more fat to chew? The Leicester Lip spent 15 minutes at stand-off after replacing an out-of-sorts Neil Jenkins, and set the place ablaze with his wit and ingenuity. "He sees things that others cannot see," said Henry, admiringly. As a result of that 20-20 vision, Healey now occupies a far more influential position than third scrum-half; indeed, he has left Jenkins contemplating the walk-on role of fourth outside-half.
Beginning in Brisbane on Saturday, life will get a whole lot harder for the tourists especially as they are still short of specialist hookers following Robbie McBryde's early departure with a nasty leg injury. But as Donal Lenihan, the manager, said: "On every Lions tour, there are three or four important moments. It may well be that half-time in Townsville was one of those moments."
Queensland President's XV: Penalties Drahm 2. Lions: Tries Young, Charvis 2, Robinson 5, penalty try, Henderson 3, O'Kelly; Conversions Jenkins 5, Perry 4.
Queensland President's XV: N Williams; D McCallum, J Pelesasa, J Ramsamy, S Barton; S Drahm, B Wakely; R Tyrell, S Hardman (capt), F Dyson, M Mitchell, R Vedelago, T McVerry, S Fava, J Roe. Replacements: S Kerr for Dyson, 8; M Tabrett for Williams, 42; A Scotney for Drahm, 57; T Tavalea for Hardman, 65; A Farley for Vedelago, 65; Williams for Barton, 69; S Barry for Wakely, 75.
LIONS: M Perry (Bath and England); D James (Bridgend and Wales), W Greenwood (Harlequins and England), R Henderson (Munster and Ireland), J Robinson (Sale and England); N Jenkins (Cardiff and Wales), M Dawson (Northampton and England); T Smith (Northampton and Scotland), R McBryde (Llanelli and Wales), D Young (Cardiff and Wales, capt), J Davidson (Ulster and Ireland), S Murray (Saracens and Scotland), C Charvis (Swansea and Wales), M Williams (Cardiff and Wales), M Corry (Leicester and England). Replacements: G Bulloch (Glasgow Caledonians and Scotland) for McBryde, 8; J Leonard (Harlequins and England) for Smith, 60; A Healey (Leicester and England) for Jenkins, 65; M O'Kelly (Leinster and Ireland) for Davidson, 68.
Referee: G Ayoub (Australia).