Woodward stirs the pot as locals turn up the heat

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The Independent Online

Fifteen days after arriving in All Black country, the British and Irish Lions go into this morning's so-called "fourth Test" against the New Zealand Maori knowing that the phoney war is finally over. No more happy-clappy bonhomie, no more shadow-boxing, no more mutual love-ins. This time, it's for real - the Maori have world-class performers at full-back, wing and prop, not to mention across the back row - and to mark the occasion, Sir Clive Woodward has ignited the first controversy of the tour.

Fifteen days after arriving in All Black country, the British and Irish Lions go into this morning's so-called "fourth Test" against the New Zealand Maori knowing that the phoney war is finally over. No more happy-clappy bonhomie, no more shadow-boxing, no more mutual love-ins. This time, it's for real - the Maori have world-class performers at full-back, wing and prop, not to mention across the back row - and to mark the occasion, Sir Clive Woodward has ignited the first controversy of the tour.

The head coach held court in Auckland yesterday to alert his audience to his concerns over the refereeing - or rather, the touch judging - of the opening matches with Bay of Plenty and Taranaki. His specific gripe? No one could tell, for he was unwilling to discuss specifics. The general thrust of his complaint? That the touch judges, most notably Mr Steve Walsh of the North Harbour union, have been exceeding their responsibilities in alerting the main official to sundry minor technical offences while running the risk of missing whatever mayhem might be happening off the ball.

Woodward had rather more to moan about later in the day when the Scottish No 8 Simon Taylor, a double Lion whose injury record has prevented him starting a match on either tour, withdrew from the Maori fixture after suffering more discomfort with his troublesome hamstring after training. The Lions summoned the 23-year-old Welsh flanker Ryan Jones as an additional forward - soon there will be no rugby players left in the British Isles - while insisting Taylor was still on tour. If he is still in New Zealand this time next week, it will be a medical miracle.

On the subject of the refereeing, the coach remarked: "When we met before the tour to discuss the officials for these matches, I was insistent that we wanted only A-grade referees. It seems we've ended up with three per game. I've been surprised by the amount of talking from the touch-lines, because as far as I'm concerned, the guys with the flags are there to signal when the ball goes off the field and to watch for foul play. Sometimes, the best referees don't make the best touch judges. My worry is that if they are watching the ball all the time, any foul play going on behind the ball is likely to be missed."

Walsh ran the line in Rotorua last weekend, and performed similar duties in New Plymouth on Wednesday - a match in which he was extremely vocal. He and Woodward have something of a history stretching back to the 2003 World Cup, when England contrived to field 16 players simultaneously during their pool match with Samoa and Walsh, a mere fourth official on that occasion, entered into a foul-mouthed argument with the red rose army's fitness co-ordinator Dave Reddin, who is performing a similar role with the Lions. Reddin was sworn at and had water squirted over him. Walsh was removed from the refereeing panel for one round of matches.

It just so happens that Walsh is refereeing today's game at the Waikato Stadium, where the Maori, who have a rich heritage of giving Lions teams the mother and father of a hurry-up, will be attempting to mark the departure of their long-serving coach, Matt Te Pou, by delivering a first victory over a British Isles touring team. Quite why Woodward chose this particular occasion to stir the pot remains unclear, for apart from a marginal forward-pass decision that denied Geordan Murphy a first-half try against Taranaki, there has been precious little in the way of dispute.

Woodward probably fears that over the course of the next three hazardous fixtures - the Lions face two of New Zealand's traditional provincial powers, Wellington and Otago, hard on the heels of this set-to with the Maori - there will be an attempt to soften up his players ahead of the opening Test with the All Blacks a fortnight today. If this occurs, it will not be for the first time. Someone always gets stuck into the Lions somewhere along the line and Woodward wants the whip cracked hard and loud the moment it happens, if not before.

Today's contest should be compelling, whatever the fine detail of the officiating. Te Pou, who has coached the Maori for a decade, believes this to be the strongest of all his teams and with the likes of Leon MacDonald, Rico Gear, Caleb Ralph, Carl Hayman, Jono Gibbes and Marty Holah in the starting line-up, not to mention the brilliant young midfielder Luke McAlister, the "fourth Test" label is far from inappropriate.

"What we want to see," said Eddie O'Sullivan, one of Woodward's right-hand coaches, "is control of the football. Things will go up another notch with this game and, as we struggled in our last two matches when we failed to exercise control and maintain our patience, the importance of getting these aspects of our game absolutely right here is obvious."

If the Lions establish authority at the set piece, the Maori will find it difficult to load the bullets for their exceptional back division. If, however, Gibbes and Holah are allowed to play their fast and furious flankers' games on the front foot, it will be a long day at the office for the likes of Michael Owen, who has moved off the bench to replace the unfortunate Taylor.

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