Wilkinson in as Lions wheel out big guns

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The British and Irish Lions will aim many of their biggest guns at Wellington, the second most powerful provincial side in New Zealand, in Wednesday's critical match at the stadium known as "The Caketin".

The British and Irish Lions will aim many of their biggest guns at Wellington, the second most powerful provincial side in New Zealand, in Wednesday's critical match at the stadium known as "The Caketin".

Jonny Wilkinson, every bit as big an obsession in All Black territory as he is in the English shires, plays his first game since rescuing the tourists from the embarrassment of a defeat by Argentina while still on home soil, while two of the more potent wings in the northern hemisphere, Jason Robinson and Gareth Thomas, will don the red shirt for the first time on this trip.

However, much of the attention will be focused on one of the smaller members of a side containing a high number of Test candidates: Neil Back, knee-high to a grasshopper by modern standards, 36 years young and the oldest man ever to be selected in an initial Lions party. Judging by the performances of the open-side flankers encountered by the tourists thus far, Back will need to be at his very best to keep his head above water. Should he avoid drowning in a flood of Wellington forwards, his chances of playing in the first Test in Christchurch in 12 days' time will be considerably enhanced.

One of the Lions' principal problems has been their failure to get a grip on New Zealand techniques and refereeing interpretations at the breakdown. This has not gone unnoticed here - indeed, it is the talk of every town in the country - and while Sir Clive Woodward and his fellow coaches are in full Corporal Jones mode with their "don't panic" statements, they are clearly concerned at their loose forwards' inability to make sense of life in and around the tackle area. Encouragingly for them, Back fully intends to make sense of it.

"I don't see it as a massive problem," he said yesterday, as confident as ever. "The interpretations in the contact area are slightly different and more players here seem to know instinctively what to do in these situations. We have to adapt, and if you're asking me whether this is the ultimate challenge for an open-side flanker, I would say it is, without question. As I was saying to Jonny, the star position in this country is No 7, not No 10. But it's a challenge I've encountered before and come out on the winning side. I back myself. I always do."

Back would certainly have played in one of the three opening matches but for the four-week suspension slapped on him by the Rugby Football Union, who took a very dim view of the punch he landed on his former England colleague, Joe Worsley, during last month's Premiership final at Twickenham. That ban expires tomorrow, and if the Lions are not to expire in New Zealand's capital city, they will need Back to hit the ground sprinting.

"I regret getting myself involved in a situation that prevented me from playing, but four weeks' rest at the end of a heavy season has done me some good," he continued. "I'm happy with my condition, both physically and mentally, and I'm desperate to play."

Woodward has named what looks suspiciously like a first-choice back division, with Brian O'Driscoll, the captain, and Gavin Henson reunited at centre and Dwayne Peel paired with Wilkinson at half-back.

The forward unit is less clear-cut. Simon Easterby, the Irish flanker summoned as a replacement for the injured Lawrence Dallaglio, gets a first run in the back row, but is not considered a serious candidate for Christchurch. In the front row, Julian White will play his second game in four days; in the second row, Ben Kay has an opportunity to show at least a little of the form that made his line-out work such an influential component in England's World Cup success 19 months ago.

"We always identified this game as one in which we would put out a strong side," said Woodward. "But to be fair, we put out a strong side against the Maori on Saturday and lost. That defeat has made us more determined. We were beaten because of the way we performed, rather than because of things we couldn't control, and that means there are aspects of our game we can put right.

"Will we run the Test team before the Test? I can't say right now, because I don't know what that team will be. All I know is that in two weeks' time, when we're really playing for keeps, our strongest side will be on the field."

Intriguingly, Woodward reported that his efforts to capture the All Blacks' performance against Fiji last Friday night on wide-angled film fell on stony ground when his camera team were escorted out of the North Harbour Stadium in Albany.

"I think they lasted about six minutes," he said, sadly. "It's something we've been doing for years, but it seems the New Zealanders aren't too keen on it."

Meanwhile, the Scotland No8 Simon Taylor is officially off-tour after failing to recover from the hamstring problems he first suffered during the pre-departure training camp in Wales.

"He's very philosophical about it," said the head coach of the midweek team, Ian McGeechan. "Unfortunately, the injury flared up quite badly after he completed last Friday's session and the medical team estimated he would not be fit for another two or three weeks."