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Third Test: When Cueto stands out for mere competence it is a sure sign a desperate tour is sliding towards infamy
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The Independent Online

Draw a deep breath and whisper the years to yourself: 1966, 1983, 2005. They are not dates of shame - as events outside the sporting playpen confirmed once again last week, the games men play are only games. But these three instances of blackwash are very definitely stains on the grand tradition of the British and Irish Lions, and in the immediate aftermath of this latest slide into the back end of rugby's beyond, there is an overwhelming suspicion that this blank will come to be seen as blanker than the others.

Mike Campbell-Lamerton's mid-Sixties vintage took some fearful pummellings from a battle-hardened, hugely experienced New Zealand side, yet still found ways of allowing Mike Gibson, David Watkins and Willie John McBride to leave their marks on the world. Seventeen years later, when the Lions travelled here under the captaincy of the underpowered and overmatched Ciaran Fitzgerald, the likes of Ollie Campbell and Peter Winterbottom at least asked questions of their hosts.

Can we say the same of the here and now? Have the first professional Lions to visit these shores, at the cost of a distinctly uncool £9 million, given a player or two to the world? Have they hell. The most heavily populated squad ever to tour anywhere threw up so few class acts and caught the imagination so rarely that their contribution to a one-sided Test series bordered on the embarrassing.

Those players who did manage to flourish - and the counting of them does not require the fingers of both hands - generally did so while operating at a safe distance from the All Blacks. Charlie Hodgson, who travelled in the shadow of some bloke by the name of Wilkinson, finally emerged into the light, but when a fifth-choice Auckland provincial hooker by the name of Semisi Telefoni clattered him during the first half of last Tuesday's match at Eden Park, his chances of playing in yesterday's Test disappeared in a haze of concussion.

Martyn Williams, the Welsh flanker, played some constructive rugby, but was not deemed constructive enough by the coaching team. Ryan Jones was an absolute star against Otago and deserved his promotion to the élite side, but the Blacks took approximately half a minute to work out ways of cramping his style. Dwayne Peel was hotter than most, but even he presented the New Zealanders with a soft try last night. Indeed, he wrapped it up in a gift box, stuck a pink bow on top and handed it to Ali Williams, who could barely believe his luck.

Who really stepped forward on the big occasion? Surely to God, there must have been someone. Last night, the most energetic performances came from the two flankers, Lewis Moody and Simon Easterby, neither of whom were in Sir Clive Woodward's thoughts ahead of the First Test in Christchurch.

And the most complete performance - or rather, the least culpable contribution in terms of error-free rugby? Woodward will not like this, for he has never rated him as highly as everyone else in English rugby, but Mark Cueto was the man on this occasion.

Much of Cueto's attacking work against Auckland four days previously had been outstanding, warmly reminiscent of the try-laden rampages he delivers week in and week out for Sale. It was, by some distance, the most convincing wing display of the entire tour. Here, against the most serious opposition imaginable, he had precious little opportunity to run anywhere but sideways and backwards, vacuuming up in the face of wave upon wave of black-shirted assaults.

In defence, however, he was faultless. Two try-saving tackles on the menacing Sitiveni Sivivatu confirmed him as an all-round wing of genuine Test class - Sivi-vatu had scored in each of the previous Tests, and the odds were microscopically short on him finding his way over the line here - and Cueto's work-rate, reflected most brightly by his willingness to move inside and volunteer for kicking duties when the Lions' barricades showed signs of crumbling at the foundations, had something of the Josh Lewsey about it.

Cueto can travel home happy in the knowledge that his career is on an upward curve; certainly, his will be one of the first names on Andy Robinson's teamsheet when the likes of New Zealand and Australia come knocking at the gates of Twickenham in November.

But a busy Lions Test debut, a couple of big tackles and no ball-carries to write home about is not much of a return on the tourists' unprecedentedly lavish investment. When all is said and done, the least utilised but most accomplished of the red-shirted wings did not have to do anything out of the ordinary to rise above his brethren in the final match of the trip. And if that is not an indictment of these visitors, what is?

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