Wellington war of words as Weepu blasts 'bullying' Lions

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It seems just a little rich, given the scale of the beating they suffered against the New Zealand Maori in Hamilton at the weekend, but the British and Irish Lions were roundly castigated for their bullying tactics yesterday by one of the principal thorns in their side - a player who rather fancies giving them another dose of foul-tasting medicine in Wellington tomorrow. The accuser's name? Piri Weepu. His specialist subject? The rugby con-trick.

It seems just a little rich, given the scale of the beating they suffered against the New Zealand Maori in Hamilton at the weekend, but the British and Irish Lions were roundly castigated for their bullying tactics yesterday by one of the principal thorns in their side - a player who rather fancies giving them another dose of foul-tasting medicine in Wellington tomorrow. The accuser's name? Piri Weepu. His specialist subject? The rugby con-trick.

"They were trying to get at the Maori players by doing little things off the ball," Weepu said of the Lions' approach to proceedings at the Waikato Stadium on Saturday. "They were attacking players who weren't near the rucks, trying to wind them up and get them off their game. But the boys held their composure well. At the end of the day we came off with the victory, and they didn't."

Weepu, the clever little scrum-half who has been granted a second crack at the tourists in the space of four days, also suggested that the Lions' strategy at the breakdown - a topic of hot debate following the Maori loose forwards' success in dominating that phase of the game - was entirely negative. "They're pretty good at what they do," he said, much to the surprise of those under the impression that the tourists contested the tackle area like novices.

"They like slowing down the ball so they can get their defence organised. As with the Maori, we'll have to get in there and get the thing away as fast as possible, because they struggle a bit against quick ball."

This kind of propaganda is not unknown in the southern hemisphere, especially when the home sides attempt to ram home a perceived advantage ahead of the opening Test. The Australians are the acknowledged masters of the pre-emptive strike, which generally takes the form of alerting match officials to opposition tactics that they consider to be dubious or threatening, but the New Zealanders are catching up fast.

Graham Henry, the crafty All Blacks coach, has been taking pot-shots at the Lions at every opportunity - he openly joked about the unprecedented size of Sir Clive Woodward's tour party earlier this week - and there is a widespread notion here that talking the talk is only marginally less important than walking the walk.

The Lions know plenty about Weepu, who has been included in the Junior All Blacks party for their forthcoming tour of Australia, but in general, tomorrow's opponents will not be as familiar as they might have been. Four members of the full All Black squad for the Test series, which begins here on Saturday week, have been withheld by Henry and his fellow coaches - the centre Tana Umaga, his fellow midfielder Conrad Smith, the flanker Jerry Collins and the No 8 Rodney So'oialo - and while a fifth contender for an international spot, Ma'a Nonu, has been released, the absence of the big-name quartet makes preparation just a little awkward.

Just for once, game preparation took something of a back seat yesterday. Many of the Lions, including a substantial number of tomorrow's side, spent the day jet-boating on the Waimakariri River, and as the England full-back and Test favourite for the position, Josh Lewsey, explained: "You have to forget about the rugby now and again.

"If we were back home, we wouldn't have rugby going through our minds non-stop. Players notice the benefit of things like this when they step back on to the pitch. They feel refreshed, which is vital. If we just have rugby, rugby, rugby all the time, it becomes monotonous. That's when a level of enthusiasm disappears from playing and training."

Enthusiasm in training will be a key element from here on in - as Woodward admitted in the wake of the Maori defeat, he has been too light on contact work in the early weeks of the tour. Four years ago in Wallaby country, the Lions overdid it on the physicality front, and Woodward, acutely aware of that costly error, decided to take the opposite approach. There is a balance to be struck, however, and the coach has now decided to up the ante in an effort to solve his side's glaring problems at the breakdown.

Wellington will be the measure of any improvement, for their top man, the former Swansea coach John Plumtree, intends to stretch the tourists to snapping point. "It's fantastic that the Maori put a bit of pressure back on the Lions," Plumtree said yesterday, "and we know the opportunity is there for us to derail their trip. If they can be turned over twice in a row, some real shudders will go up their spine. With the threats we have out wide, we're coming to play. We won't win this game by kicking the ball into touch."

Wellington (v British and Irish Lions, Tomorrow 8.10am, Wellington): 15 S Paku; 14 L Fa'atau, 13 M Nonu, 12 T Tu'ipulotu, 11 R Kinikinilau, 10 J Gopperth, 9 P Weepu; 8 T Waldrom, 7 B Herring, 6 K Ormsby, 5 R Filipo, 4 L Andrews, 3 T Fairbrother, 2 M Schwalger, 1 J McDonnell (captain). Replacements: 16 L Mahoney, 17 J Schwalger, 18 K Thompson, 19 J Purdie, 20 R Flutey, 21 T Ellison, 22 C Jane.

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