Williams inspires Lions rampage of absurd irrelevance

Manawatu 6 - British & Irish Lions 109
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The Independent Online

Lions in creativity shock! Hang out the bunting, crack open the cold ones and throw the chicken on the barbecue. Well, why not enjoy it while you can? Sir Clive Woodward's chastened charges put 17 tries past some embarrassingly lightweight second-tier opposition here yesterday, which was 17 more than they managed against the All Blacks in Christchurch last Saturday. As this weekend is unlikely to witness any similar explosion of red-shirted joie de vivre - most observers expect the second Test to be more brutal than balletic - this may have been the last hurrah for the more artistic members of the party.

Most of the tourists' training sessions, even the unopposed ones, have been more demanding than anything they encountered in the course of this pathetically one-sided 80 minutes, but there were some entertaining touches all the same. When Shane Williams, the twinkle-toed maestro from Morriston, was not scoring tries - he ran in five, all of them at express speed - he was creating them for others. Charlie Hodgson underlined his status as the form outside-half in the party, not that it will do him a fat lot of good in Test terms, while the likes of Geordan Murphy and the excellent Chris Cusiter enhanced their reputations.

To what purpose? Heaven only knows. Three-figure victories are no good to man nor beast, for it is easy to come up with answers when no questions are being asked. Donncha O'Callaghan, the Irish lock, may have done enough to work his way into the élite team, for his half-time substitution had more than a whiff of protection about it. There again, the same could be said for Gordon Bulloch and Martyn Williams, who also departed either during the interval or just prior to it. How is it possible to judge a man's worth when the opposition has no value?

Shane Williams was certainly something to behold, but in this environment he was always likely to be. The Welshman is reminiscent of Jason Robinson in his prime - a comparison made almost painfully poignant by the sight of an out-of-sorts Robinson struggling to hold himself together on the opposite wing - and there is certainly a case to be made for his inclusion on the bench this weekend. Impact players are vitally important in this day and age, and as the Lions had made all the attacking impact of a three-day-old blancmange between the opening dozen minutes against Bay of Plenty in the first match of the tour and the start of yesterday's semi-contest, it could be argued that he is worth his miniscule weight in gold.

Charlie McAlister, the Manawatu coach, described his team as "a doormat", and he was not far wrong. They took on the most lavishly equipped, expensively prepared Lions side in history with a line-up boasting only a single Super 12 player in Nathan Kemp. The former Auckland Blues hooker was making his first appearance for the province, but McAlister gave him the captaincy anyway. How did Kemp repay him? With a head-high tackle on the beautifully poised Hodgson that earned him a spell in the cooler. During his 10-minute absence, the tourists scored three tries.

Ian McGeechan, on the other hand, was a little cagier in his assessment of this eighth match of the trip. "It was the biggest possible statement this group of players could have made, but in terms of Test selection, we still have a full review ahead of us," said the Scot, who has taken charge of the midweek team after three tours of duty as head coach. "I think this has been a valuable exercise. It was miles away from a Test match, obviously, but if you saw the smiles on the faces of the non-players when the team returned to the dressing-room, you'd agree that this performance has lifted a dark cloud. It will help us get in the right frame of mind to step up a level against the All Blacks this weekend."

For the record, Williams the wing did not break any records, despite the scale of his spree. Both David Duckham and J J Williams managed six tries in a single game, the former in New Zealand in 1971, the latter in South Africa four years later. It was, though, the heaviest victory by a Lions side in All Black territory, comfortably outstripping the 64-5 win by Ronnie Dawson's team over a provincial pot-pourri of Marlborough, Nelson, Golden Bay and Montueka in 1959.

That winning margin was generated in the days of the three-point try, however, and delivered by a side widely considered to have been the best attacking outfit ever to visit these shores. Regardless of the efforts of Williams, Hodgson and the rest yesterday, these Lions have a very long way to go to challenge the '59ers.

MANAWATU: F Bryant; B Gray, J Campbell, M Oldridge (N Buckley, 53), J Leota; G Smith (B Trew, 46), J Hargreaves (D Paul, 74); S Moore, N Kemp (capt), K Barrett (I Cook, 66), T Faleafaga, P Rodgers, H Triggs (P Maisiri, 49), J Bradnock (S Easton, 79), B Matenga (S Easton, 39-40; C Moke 49).

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS: G Murphy (Ireland); J Robinson (England), O Smith (England), G D'Arcy (Ireland), S Williams (Wales); C Hodgson (England), C Cusiter (Scotland); A Sheridan (England), G Bulloch (Scotland, capt), J Hayes (Ireland), S Shaw (England), D O'Callaghan (Ireland), M Corry (England), M Williams (Wales), M Owen (Wales). Replacements: A Titterrell (England) for Bulloch, 40; G Cooper (Wales) for Cusiter, h-t; B Cockbain (Wales) for O'Callaghan, h-t; N Back (England) for M Williams, h-t; R O'Gara (Ireland) for Hodgson, 50; M Cueto (England) for Robinson, 52; M Stevens (England) for Hayes, 61; Hayes for Titterrell 79; Bulloch for Corry 82.

Referee: L Bray (New Zealand).