Prior to last Saturday's opening Test match in Christchurch, the biggest jokes on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand had been the heavy-handed neuroticism of the media relations, which mattered very little in the great scheme of things, and the asinine quality of the tourists' so-called anthem, which mattered even less. Then the line-out happened - or rather, failed to happen in a comic fashion bordering on the Chaplinesque. And that, in the context of the series against the most potent rugby team in the world, has become a subject of overwhelming importance.
To the uninitiated - and on last Saturday's evidence, we can include in that category the Lions themselves - there is nothing remotely complicated about the common or garden line-out. Shortish man throws ball to tallish man, who either catches it in both hands or deflects it delicately to a very short man indeed, who in turn delivers it to the attacking forces assembled outside him. What could be simpler, apart from boiling an egg?
The reality is rather different. If the other set-piece phase in modern-day rugby, the scrum, is far more complex than it looks - there are the "sets" and the "hits" to consider, along with the squeeze, the double-shove, the half-wheel, the lowering, the boring-in and all the calculations governing body-angles and load-bearing that make it seem less a sporting concern than an exercise in human physics - the line-out demands both absolute precision and a harmonisation of athletic qualities that would make the Kirov Ballet think twice about participating.
At the weekend, there was no harmony. The Lions had changed their line-out calls 24 hours before the match - a throwback to the 2001 tour of Australia, when their codes were cracked by the Wallabies and used against them - and as a result, the principal jumpers, Paul O'Connell of Ireland and Ben Kay of England, were less certain of the plays than they might have been.
Shane Byrne's throwing-in was woefully inaccurate, even with the wild weather conditions taken into account, and those few deliveries that did pass muster proved useless, either because the lifting of the jumpers was ill-timed or the jumpers themselves were not sufficiently aggressive in defending their own ball.
There was no variety, either. Martin Corry is not the greatest line-out exponent on the planet, but he is not the worst either. For some unfathomable reason, he was not used.
For the Lions' line-out drill to have succeeded against such formidable rugby specimens as Chris Jack and Ali Williams, both of whom offer 6ft 8in of vertical threat, these disciplines - call, secondary call, dummy move, throw, lift, catch - needed dovetailing, and the whole routine had to be performed in a spirit of naked hostility. As the first commandment of the union game states: "If you grab your opponents by the balls, their hearts and minds will surely follow."
In the event, the mechanical section of the line-out broke down - as early as the middle of the first half, the Lions pack resembled an ancient piece of farm machinery limping painfully along a dirt track in the Canterbury hills - and its soul went missing in action. The All Blacks plundered the Lions on 10 occasions, a calamitous figure given that the tourists had identified this phase as an area of strength. On the odd occasion that the tourists won their own throw, the quality of delivery was so poor that the possession was barely usable.
To make matters worse, the refereeing of the line-out should have been right up the tourists' street. Joel Jutge, a laissez-faire sort in the grand tradition of French officials, refused to make a pedant of himself by whistling for every minor indiscretion. Aware that the strong southerly wind and driving rain made life difficult for everyone - as any rugby follower will confirm, this eminently sensible approach is the exception rather than the rule among referees - and acutely attuned to the fundamental ferocity of the contest, he applied the law of the jungle as well as the laws of the game.
This should have suited the likes of O'Connell and Corry, tough hombres cast in the Martin Johnson mould, and ought to have brought out the best in Kay, who, if less bellicose by nature, has always responded positively to the odd clout - the second-row forward's equivalent of a rocket up the rear end. He was, after all, the architect of the England line-out that provided such sustenance during the more difficult moments of the triumphant World Cup campaign in 2003.
Andy Robinson, the forwards coach for the élite team on this tour, was, as ever, willing to shoulder the blame in public. "It's my area of responsibility," he said, "and it went wrong. You can't play this game without the ball, and it's my job to work out ways of ensuring a decent supply of it. I can't say I'm not extremely disappointed." Privately, he was seething at his pack's lack of combativeness, an almost complete absence of pugnacity. He had wanted his men to "make it personal" with their opposite numbers. Apart from the occasional attempts of O'Connell to manhandle Jack at the front of the line-out, there was nothing of what Robinson expected to see.
What could have been done? The coaches did not cover themselves in glory on the selection front, for Byrne is a low-rent hooker in international terms and Kay is horribly out of sorts, as he has been since the World Cup, and they did not react quickly enough to events unfolding before their eyes. Steve Thompson and Danny Grewcock, two men who always play in full war paint, should have been on the field after half an hour, rather than been left to languish on the replacements' bench for 58 barren minutes. Corry, the pack leader, should have been told to inject some variety into an operation that had quickly become pitifully predictable.
It beggars belief that the Lions will be as poor in this department in Wellington this weekend. There again, belief has been beggared at every turn on this tour. Jack and Williams are high-class players, and they look all the classier as a result of last weekend's stroll in the park. If they are given another free ride on Saturday, there will be nothing left to debate come the final Test in Auckland.
Line-out kings who hit the heights
* JUSTIN HARRISON 'The Plank', as Austin Healey famously called the young Australian, effectively beat the 2001 Lions with his dramatic steal from Martin Johnson in third Test injury time.
* BEN KAY The Leicester lock made his name in 2002, and won his World Cup place, by denying New Zealand possession on England's line in the last minute and ensuring a home victory at Twickenham.
* ALI WILLIAMS Not only did the 6ft 8in All Blacks forward win almost all his ball in the first Test against the Lions last week, he caught one of Shane Byrne's wayward throws and ran in for a try.Reuse content