Woodward heads for Wellington with a reputation to save, never mind the series

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Brian O'Driscoll's shoulder will heal, no doubt more quickly than his now raging sense of grievance that the greatest stage of rugby he will probably ever know has been snatched away. For the moment, though, there is an even greater human drama. It concerns the reputation of Sir Clive Woodward.

Brian O'Driscoll's shoulder will heal, no doubt more quickly than his now raging sense of grievance that the greatest stage of rugby he will probably ever know has been snatched away. For the moment, though, there is an even greater human drama. It concerns the reputation of Sir Clive Woodward.

It has one chance of surviving an unlimited disaster and we will know about this across the Cook Strait in Wellington on Saturday.

Woodward has to remake his woebegone Lions, he has to stay alive against an All Black team which in every aspect - coaching, planning, motivation and not least raw talent - looks to be in a different and vastly superior league.

What hope has he of repairing some of his own folly in falling back on what he thought he knew? An independent view has to be indebted to the boxing promoter Don King's assessment of the prospects of another long-shot contender. "His chances are Slim - and none," said King, "and I just heard the bad news. Slim has left town."

Wherever he went, it seems extremely unlikely that it was Wellington, New Zealand.

In England there may have been some cushioning of the extent of Woodward's fall here. Because of past achievement, his aura as English rugby's ultimate winner with a World Cup and a knighthood to prove it, the specialist rugby media - with one or two exceptions - had been brushing lightly on his bizarre abandonment of the old ethos of the Lions - the one that worked on the fundamental strength of drawing the best of four nations.

The result may have been the impression that the extent of the All Black triumph, which was absolute here on Saturday, came like a bolt from the storm-laden clouds. It didn't. It was the most predicable meltdown since the demise of the trash stock market. It was a bonfire of worked-out English vanities, and whatever euphemisms may have surfaced back home, you should know that the verdict in rugby-wise New Zealand could not be more damning.

Under the headline "Wayward Woodward", the respected former All Black coach Laurie Mains yesterday put his man to the sword.

Mains declared: "The Lions proved what I have been saying since they first touched down. They are the worst Lions team to come here. In the first Test they were fortunate it wasn't dry. If it had been it would have been a rout. The Lions offered nothing on attack, but of more concern to Clive - I refuse to call him Sir Clive because he just doesn't strike me as a knight in shining armour - was the way the All Blacks dominated the forward confrontations. He did the Lions jersey a disservice by not giving his first 15 a run before the Test. I'm amazed by his 'spin'. As a coach I put my credibility on the line whenever I spoke. That honesty is important because the rugby public know what they are looking at."

Maybe the most savage critical blow to Woodward has come from a lot nearer home - embittered Wales and their hero, JPR Williams, a member of undoubtedly the best Lions team to come here, the winners of 1971. Williams's rage was volcanic in the stands of Jade Stadium. His most cutting remark: "As a player Clive Woodward was mediocre - as a coach, judging on his performance in the last few weeks, you have to say he is less than that."

How could Williams say that about a World Cup winner, a man who over the years has systematically moved England into the first division of the world game, who had the nerve and the self-belief to attack and eventually demolish the mystical idea that the southern hemisphere had some special grasp on the challenge of winning when it mattered? Williams could say it so bitterly - and Woodward's defenders might say cheaply - because it reflects the degree of his outrage. He thinks Woodward has made a mockery of the Lions tradition that Williams and such luminous old team-mates as Gareth Edwards, Barry John and John Dawes, for obvious reasons, hold so dear.

Williams is not some churlish old pro yearning for lost days of youth and glory. He is not a punch-drunk old front-rower, even though he often played with the spirit of one at full-back. No, by trade Williams is a surgeon - and in the last few days he has been applying to Woodward's performance a critical scalpel.

He made his points before and after a Lions performance here which has been critically assessed by all who have any working knowledge of Woodward's career as by some distance his poorest performance as a coach - worse than the 76-0 defeat in Brisbane in 1998 on the "Tour of Hell" when he was virtually at third- team strength - and the creatively bankrupt loss to South Africa in Paris in the 1999 World Cup.

On those occasions, Woodward was operating from weakness. Here, he has been telling the world, he had massive strength. He had the richest budget - £9m - ever invested in a rugby tour; the biggest squad of players, 45; and the greatest corps of assistants, 30. As the first Test unfolded, it surely wasn't only Williams and some bemused New Zealanders who were speculating into which rugby backwater the great armada had sailed.

Half an hour before the kick-off, as the weather swept in from the Antarctic, it was interesting - and subsequently profoundly significant - to see one All Black drill out on the field. It was line-out work of a particularly intense nature. Under the close watch of several coaches, the All Black locks Chris Jack and Ali Williams - who paralysed the Lions with their jumping and clean handling and general marauding - worked with team-mates and squad members. The critical point was when they leapt into the air with the kind of precision you normally associate with synchronised swimmers.

Half an hour later Ireland's Paul O'Connell and England's Ben Kay looked in need less of drilling than a brief introduction to the man throwing the ball, Shane Byrne, who performed the unlikely feat of tossing it more erratically than the previous favourite for the role, Steve Thompson.

A detail, maybe, but Woodward's boast was that his force would be a master of every last one. He said they were the best prepared team in Lions history - which for some was an unwelcome reminder of a similar claim by his football counterpart, Glenn Hoddle, before the 1998 World Cup in France.

That comparison, worryingly, doesn't end with the soundbite. Hoddle was convinced that he had a unique vision. He could take football planning to new levels. He could bring along a faith healer. He could reach areas other coaches couldn't. However, he didn't give Alan Shearer and Michael Owen, the new scoring sensation, any significant time together before the start of the serious action.

Just as Hoddle was critically slow to see the meaning of Owen, leaving him on the bench for the start of the tournament, Woodward has been equally negligent of the impact of the Welsh revolution. It is poetic justice that Tom Shanklin, one of the stars of the winning Six Nations campaign, is no longer available after joining O'Driscoll and Richard Hill on sick parade. Shane Williams, who brought more than a little terror to the All Blacks in a World Cup group game less than two years ago, has been marginalised. Ryan Jones, who replaced Hill and was the Lions' best player, as he was in his other game, against Otago, wasn't included in the original squad heavy with Englishmen who could do no better than finish fourth in the Six Nations.

This was supposed to be Woodward's last hurrah in rugby before departing for the new world of football with Southampton, but of course all cheers are at the least suspended now. So is the aura that came with winning the World Cup. If it is true you are only as good as your last campaign, Southampton is for Woodward not the doorway to dazzling new success. It is a bolt-hole. Wellington does provide a last chance of rugby redemption but there is no doubt it would be nice of Slim to give the coach a call. Better still, a visit.