The best of preparation, the worst of outcomes

Dirt-trackers of the tour
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The Independent Online

The Lions have the power of four, but New Zealand have augmented their rugby playing numbers from the Pacific Islands. The Lions are up against men whose ancestry lies in Samoa, Fiji or Tonga, and on the field there is no more fearsome warrior. The exciting winger Sitiveni Sivivatu is just the latest example.

A few years ago, when he was coaching Wales, Graham Henry said he was worried for the future of rugby in his home country because of the Polynesian factor at school-boy level. They matured earlier, were bigger, faster and stronger, and children whose parents were worried for their wellbeing were being deterred from taking up the game.

Now the All Blacks, who are being described by the Lions as the best team in the world, owe something of their new-found status to players not so much from Lower Hutt as Apia. This is New Zealand's Apia hour.

Dr James Robson, who is on his fourth successive Lions tour, studied medicine in Edinburgh and Dundee. He said this expedition was "light years ahead" of the tour to Australia in 2001, yet 13 players were invalided out. Robson spoke about the need for a month of rehabilitation and "several glasses of wine", and he was talking about himself. "Something has to give," he said. As the casualties mounted following the victory over Auckland, the impression grew that professional rugby union is a sport that should carry a health warning. In terms of explosive contact it is up there with ice hockey and gridiron, and players in those sports wear protective gear from head to toe.

Sir Clive arrived in the Land of the Long White Cloud with the biggest invasion force in Lions history and as the coach who had guided England to the northern hemisphere's ground-breaking triumph in the World Cup. His reputation has taken a mauling here, just as Graham Henry's did after he coached the Lions during their fractious 2-1 series defeat by Australia in 2001.

Henry, who left Wales under a long black cloud, has re-emerged as the saviour of the All Blacks. Next up is the Tri-Nations, but the ultimate goal for Henry - he and his fellow coaches are contracted up to 2007 - is the World Cup in France that year. For the big global one they have a habit of getting stage fright.

Jonny Wilkinson arrived as the player that Sir Clive could not leave behind. Time was when Wilkinson never missed a tackle. When he missed Daniel Carter in the Second Test in Wellington, receiving another "stinger" shoulder injury, and left the series, it was like watching a transferral of power at No 10.

In a record victory Carter scored 33 points, 10 more than his age, including two marvellous tries. "We are devel-oping a very special culture," Carter said. "We are building a base for the future." Dr Robson said that if the tour had another week to go Wilkinson would have been fine again. The stinger, he explained, was like being hit on the funny bone, although there was nothing funny about it.

One of the mantras is that there are no easy games in New Zealand. Not strictly true. The Lions put more than a hundred points on Manawatu and Shane Williams had the freedom of Palmerston North, prompting his selection for the Second Test in Wellington.

He was cruelly exposed both by the pace of Carter and by the strength of Sitiveni Sivivatu in that game at the Cake Tin but managed, in the dying minutes, to pull off a spectacular try-saving tackle on Carter.

It not only prevented the golden boy from completing a hat-trick of tries in Wellington but in the process the world's greatest stand-off damaged a shoulder and had to withdraw from yesterday's Third Test in Auckland.

This was a rare piece of good news for the Lions, but not so good for the box office. Most spectators would have preferred to have seen Carter in action.

First minute of the First Test in Christchurch, the Lions captain, Brian O'Driscoll, puts his hands into a mini-ruck to retrieve the ball and has his world turned upside down by the All Blacks captain, Tana Umaga, who takes one leg, and the hooker Keven Mealamu, who takes the other.

O'Driscoll dislocated a shoulder and may be out of the game for six months. Was O'Driscoll deliberately taken out? Was it a "spear" tackle? The Lions didn't go so far as to suggest that O'Driscoll was targeted but were rightly incensed at the nature of the assault. If there was such a thing as a half-spear tackle this was it, and the confusion led the citing commissioner to clear the All Blacks while Danny Grewcock, still pleading his innocence, boarded a plane for London after being found guilty of biting Mea-lamu on the hand. The Lions PR offensive, spearheaded by Alastair Campbell, backfired disastrously.

Gareth Thomas, who played wing, full-back and centre in the bewildering series of changes the Lions made, particularly at threequarter, was promoted to captain after the injury to O'Driscoll.

Standing in the middle of a training-session huddle, Thomas's battle cry was: "I've only got two words to say to you - don't f***ing panic". It produced one of the biggest laughs of the tour.

In similarly aggressive mode, but without the punch-line, Campbell was heard to utter the immortal line: "We will give them two f***ing minutes." He was referring to the time allocated to the sports photographers at a Lions photo-shoot. Charming.

The midweek side, coached by Ian McGeechan and Gareth Jenkins, survived unbeaten after scraping past Auckland in a poor game at Eden Park. "I'm immensely proud of them," McGeechan said. "They played their hearts out and dug in."

He said that the tour was at least a week, or two games, short of a proper preparation for the First Test. The dirt-trackers, most of whom were free last week to sample the delights of Auckland, were called the Midweek Massive. Henry was not so kind. The Lions, he said, had had an "indifferent" tour, and it could have been worse. "I think they have been fortunate in not playing strong provincial teams. If they'd played the Crusaders, the Hurricanes, the Highlanders, the Blues and the Chiefs, who would know what the result would have been? I'll just leave you with that thought." That's the problem with rugby here. They never know when to stop.

This tour, though, was not about the midweek side, it was about winning the Test series. If Sir Clive had achieved that and lost every other match he would have returned home with mission accomplished.

It was obvious from the outset that the squad was too big. Sir Clive said if he could have, he would have taken 75 players rather than 45, but that is no way to win a Test match. Most people here, Henry included, haven intimate knowledge of British rugby. Pat Lam, the Auckland coach, played for Northampton, Newcastle and was on the Scotland coaching staff. "Ultimately, for every player the best thing about touring is getting to know each other well and getting game time. It's difficult when you have such a big squad," he said.

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