Woodward arrives with a red rag for New Zealand's bullish locals

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The Independent Online

Basking in the reflected glory of Liverpool's extraordinary achievement in Istanbul - "Our warmest congratulations go to Rafael Benitez and his team, though we missed the best bit because our plane took off a couple of minutes before the start of the penalty shoot-out," he said - Sir Clive Woodward marked his return to New Zealand by advising the local populace that recent research had identified red as the dominant colour in securing sporting success.

Basking in the reflected glory of Liverpool's extraordinary achievement in Istanbul - "Our warmest congratulations go to Rafael Benitez and his team, though we missed the best bit because our plane took off a couple of minutes before the start of the penalty shoot-out," he said - Sir Clive Woodward marked his return to New Zealand by advising the local populace that recent research had identified red as the dominant colour in securing sporting success.

Most observers suspect the British and Irish Lions will require something more substantial than the right shade of shirt if they are to beat the All Blacks in the forthcoming Test series.

Generally speaking, black lords it over red when it comes to chasing an oval ball across a rectangle of mud. As Woodward admitted yesterday on touching down in the city of sails: "We are attempting to reverse the tide of history." Maybe they shouldn't depend solely on jersey tone, after all.

Woodward offered his usual mixture of aggressive confidence - "Success here would surpass anything any of us have achieved in the past, but at our best we can win" - and disarming modesty. Asked if the players of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales had managed to reconcile their traditional differences, he said: "I thought we were doing OK until last Monday night."

That was a reference to the Lions' drawn match with an Argentinian side shorn of more than 20 senior players - a game the Pumas could easily have won. It was not until the ninth minute of stoppage time that Jonny Wilkinson pulled his usual rabbit from the hat and converted a face-saving penalty with the last kick of the game.

The vast majority of those who started that fixture will not feature against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua a week today. Neither will Jason Robinson, the England full-back, and two of the more influential figures in Wales' unexpected Grand Slam triumph, the outside-half Stephen Jones and the full-back Gareth Thomas. Jones, on duty with his French club side Clermont Auvergne this weekend, is expected to join the party on Tuesday, while Robinson, given leave to spend a few extra days with his pregnant wife, has indicated that he will arrive in Auckland within a fortnight. Depending on how Toulouse perform over the next couple of weeks, Thomas may not playuntil the match with Otago on 18 June.

Brian O'Driscoll, the tour captain, is certain to face Bay of Plenty, who are nowhere near as soft a touch as some people imagine, having finished third in last season's National Provincial Championship and relieved Auckland of the Ranfurly Shield. The fascination surrounds the other 14, to be revealed on Monday.

The first "Saturday side" will give some indication of Woodward's thinking in terms of the Test team, and by the time he gets to the second Saturday and the desperately difficult game with the New Zealand Maori in Hamilton his ideas will be very clear indeed.

Most New Zealanders, bewildered by their own selectors' apparent reluctance to pick the likes of Justin Marshall and Joe Rokocoko for the first Test in Christchurch on 25 June, consider themselves on safer ground when it comes to predicting the Lions team. They expect Woodward to risk upsetting the Celtic contingent by pinning his faith on the English "hard-heads" from the 2003 World Cup: the Wilkinsons, the Robinsons, the Lawrence Dallaglios. Perhaps the most dependable of these players is Richard Hill, the Saracens flanker, whose displays for the Lions in South Africa in 1997 and in Australia four years later were world-class in every respect. His presence on this tour, so soon after major surgical repairs on the ravaged ligaments in his left knee, is a bonus of considerable proportions.

"I'm fit, definitely," he confirmed before leaving for New Zealand. "I took a bang on the same knee during the wildcard final with Gloucester at Twickenham recently and I couldn't be considered for the game with Argentina, but the damage did not impact on the original injury. In terms of my all-round fitness, there are clearly improvements to be made; I was out of rugby for a fair few months, and that has its effect. But I haven't lost much, if anything, in terms of pace, and the injury does not appear to have had any negative consequences as far as my style of play is concerned."

Dallaglio, who suffered a similarly serious knee injury while serving with the 2001 Lions, lost a good deal of pace. Woodward will be mightily relieved if Hill is spared that trauma. The All Blacks are always quick in the back row - in their No 7, Richie McCaw, they boast a Maserati in boots and protective headgear. For the sake of this tour, the Lions need Hill to be his old self.

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