Spin, schedule and selection: How Woodward got it wrong

Resounding defeat in the third Test in Auckland completed a wretched Lions tour where three major mistakes from the head coach left his side looking outdated and over the hill. Chris Hewett reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The facts of the matter are relentlessly grim; indeed, the numbers resemble a bank statement written entirely in red ink. When Jonathan Kaplan, the South African referee, ran down the curtain on a hopelessly one-sided rubber at Eden Park on Saturday, the All Blacks had triumphed by an aggregate score of 107-40 and won the try count by the embarrassing margin of 12-3. No one had the heart or the interest to keep a tally of the errors, but we can rest assured that New Zealand were in single figures, all of them committed in this final game, while the Lions cruised effortlessly into the hundreds.

Sir Clive Woodward, World Cup winner and knight of the realm, has bottomless reserves of self-confidence, but even he needs some reassurance in light of the trauma that unfolded over the course of 50 desperate days. So here goes. The only figures that begin to match up are those covering personnel in the Tests. The Lions used 32 players in the three matches, the New Zealanders 28. As the tourists were playing 11 matches to the All Blacks' four (taking into account their warm-up game with Fiji), Woodward was plainly justified in arming himself with a squad the size of the Red Army and summoning reinforcements as and when required.

What he was not justified in doing was preaching to his hosts in their hour of glory. His immediate after-match remarks here took some believing, even by those who have indulged the odd Tolkienesque fantasy down the years. "I'd like to caution a warning to New Zealand rugby," he pronounced. "You should be reflective, because things can change very quickly. The only true judgement of a team is at a World Cup, where everyone turns up properly fit and prepared and the games take place on a level playing field. There is no gulf between hemispheres. Who holds the World Cup at the moment?"

Graham Henry, his opposite number, had an answer to that yesterday and he was stinging in his tone. "I guess that's an attempt at camouflage," he said. "You can spin these things any way you like, but what are we supposed to do? Deliberately not win the series we play in the run-up to a World Cup?

"It's ridiculous," he added. "Not worth commenting on, really. What did we bring to the series? I think we played some quality rugby. What did they bring? They came over here thinking they would win the first Test with a particular style and a particular selection - thoughts that proved to be mistaken.

"In my opinion, the game has moved on since England won the World Cup in 2003 and the shift is irrevocable. I don't believe it is possible to simply pick a huge pack of forwards and a goal-kicking outside-half and win a game that isn't being played in a blizzard.

"Rugby is multi-dimensional now, and that has to be more stimulating for everyone involved. What more can I say? We had more gamebreakers in our side than they did in theirs. It's the way of the world. One team was better than the other."

Woodward could spend the next year picking the bones out of that little tirade. Instead, he will do a little fishing and then head off into the monstrous labyrinth of professional football. What does he leave behind in terms of achievement? He says he does not care a fat lot either way. "I can't say I'm too interested in my legacy and whether it's been tarnished by our failure to win here," he said. "I accepted this job and did it to the best of my ability. We can analyse what happened until we're blue in the face, but in the end, it's sport. You have good days, you have bad days."

He does care, though. He cares massively. This defeat, so comprehensive that it crosses the boundary between the just about acceptable and the humiliating, will gnaw at Woodward for an eternity, not least because in three important areas, he allowed his hubris to get the better of him.

The first error was his appointment of Alastair Campbell in the wholly unnecessary role of "media consultant" - a decision that poisoned the well in the sense that, at pivotal moments, Campbell became a bigger figure than anyone in this vast party, the head coach included. For much of the time, he was an expensive distraction. When he did throw his weight around, in the aftermath of Brian O'Driscoll's calamitous departure from the tour with a busted shoulder, his anti-All Blacks spinning was spectacularly counter-productive.

Error number two was the coach's failure to understand that an 11-match itinerary was too short to sustain the size of operation he himself put in place. Modern rugby demands the establishment and nourishment of combinations - half-back, back row, back three - because the merest whiff of unfamiliarity or confusion is seized upon by the opposition, especially those as ruthless in their punishment of mistakes as the All Blacks. The Lions' combinations were not given sufficient time to grow.

And the third error? The first Test selection. That match in Christchurch was the whole ball game. Had the Lions won, the psychological and emotional balance of the tour would have tilted towards them.

In the event, Woodward picked the wrong men - Jason Robinson, Shane Byrne, Ben Kay, Richard Hill, Neil Back - for the wrong reasons, and played Jonny Wilkinson out of position when the poor bloke barely knew what it was to play in his usual one. Woodward believed the old line about form being temporary and class permanent. There is nothing permanent about class when a player has failed to raise a gallop in 18 months.

By winning in the South Island in the manner they did, the All Blacks were able to go for broke in Wellington, where they smeared the Lions from one end of the capital to the other. There were performances of supreme majesty from Daniel Carter and Tana Umaga, and performances of crass indiscipline from the tourists. Their basic skills went AWOL the moment the New Zealanders applied pressure, the nuts and bolts of their game were riddled with rust. Whenever the Lions scored, the New Zealanders scored back, more heavily.

So it was in the final game, lost 38-19. The Lions were three points ahead when Donncha O'Callaghan, enthusiastic to the nth degree but too wild by half at the important moments, pinned back the cauliflowers that pass for his ears and drove for the line, ignoring a clear four-man overlap on his right. Umaga, dreadlocks flying and nostrils flaring, smashed him to the ground a metre short and then clung to the ball for dear life. The All Blacks captain was given 10 minutes in the sin-bin for his trouble, and Stephen Jones kicked the penalty to double the Lions' lead. But a try had gone begging - a try that might have comforted the tourists in their hour of need.

Worse, they leaked two poor tries to the All Blacks while Umaga was kicking his heels. Desperate defensive alignment and some powder-puff tackling from Geordan Murphy handed Conrad Smith a score on a plate, while Dwayne Peel's goalkeeping fumble on his own line resulted in a daft five-pointer for Ali Williams.

By the interval, there was a third New Zealand try on the board, completed by Umaga after a sucker-punch dart from Luke McAlister, whose imaginative contribution at outside-half suggested a future of Carteresque proportions.

Sadly, the second half was a mishmash. Umaga scored again at the start of it, Rico Gear cantered in for an interception try at the death. In between, the breathlessly energetic Lewis Moody claimed a score from a rolling maul, which just about summed up the breadth of the Lions' attacking vision. It was an old-fashioned try, completed in an old-fashioned manner by an old-fashioned team. The All Blacks tend not to laugh when they concede points, but there was more than a suggestion of a knowing smirk on this occasion.

They understood, as did we all, that the Lions had been out-strategised, out-coached and over-matched - that they were as impotent as some self-pitying he-man in an Ernest Hemingway tale.

Some of the tourists had seen the best of their days long before they boarded the plane at Heathrow at the end of May. The scale of this defeat raises the depressing possibility of many of the younger element never seeing the best of theirs.

Comments