Woodward takes refuge in numbers

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The Independent Online

"It beggars belief that the issue of the number of players selected for this tour still causes such a debate," he said. "I see the things being written about this and I shake my head, because I also see what's happening in the changing room. Without the numbers, we wouldn't get close to putting out a competitive team for Saturday's game, which is one we intend to throw everything at in pursuit of victory. If anything, we brought too few people here.

"I'm not looking for vindication. It's just a case of understanding the ways in which rugby has changed. On the 1983 and 1993 tours here, the Lions ran out of players. Fact. And people are telling me that we should have brought a squad of 33 or 34. We could argue about it all night. Yes, we're bitterly disappointed at losing those two Tests, because winning the series was the primary goal. But I have to say that if I had my time over again, I wouldn't change much in terms of structure and organisation."

Wilkinson suffered two "stinger" injuries - bruisings of the nerve tissue in the neck and shoulder area - during last weekend's Test defeat in Wellington, the second of which ruled him out of this final fling at Eden Park. According to James Robson, the senior doctor in the Lions party, the World Cup-winning outside-half is not considered more susceptible to this type of injury than any of his peers, despite a casualty record that would do justice to Gettysburg. "Had there been a game on Saturday week, Jonny would have been ready," Robson said.

Henson picked up a similar injury in Wellington, but its effects were rather worse. "Sometimes the problems last a few seconds, sometimes a few weeks," Robson said. "In Gavin's case, we are talking weeks."

The outsized prop Andrew Sheridan and the young Leicester centre Ollie Smith are still struggling with longer-term conditions affecting ankle and ribs respectively.

There were also two significant casualties from Tuesday's victory over Auckland. Charlie Hodgson, tackled heavily from behind by Semisi Telefoni, was still heavily concussed yesterday, while Ben Kay, punched hard in the eye by Sam Tuitupou during a bust-up late in the first half, was ruled out of further activity virtually on waking. Five other players - the wing Shane Horgan, the centres Gareth Thomas and Will Greenwood, the prop Gethin Jenkins and the flanker Neil Back - are also under treatment.

The injury list has forced Woodward to postpone announcing his Test team until today, but at least one prop, the long-serving Graham Rowntree, is available for duty, having been cleared of a charge of punching Bryce Williams, the Auckland lock, in the midweek game. Tuitupou, cited not for his assault on Kay but for stamping on the head of the Irishman Gordon D'Arcy, picked up a six-week ban that could only be described as thoroughly merited.

The All Blacks also have injuries from the Wellington Test - Daniel Carter and his fellow midfielder Aaron Mauger were invalided out of the game - and have made three changes to their back division for this weekend's finale. Tana Umaga, their captain, moves from outside centre to the inside position, thus making way for the gifted young Wellington back Conrad Smith. Leon MacDonald, who played full-back in the first Test in Christchurch, has been handed the distinctly challenging task of filling in for the brilliant Carter in the No 10 jersey.

Their coach, Graham Henry, expressed some sympathy for Woodward yesterday. "Having been with the Lions in Australia four years ago, I can relate to what's he's going through," he said. "There is an affinity." But as ever, there was a sting in the tail. "I think the Lions have been fortunate in that they haven't played any really strong provincial teams on this trip," he continued. "Had they played the five Super 12 sides, who knows what the results might have been? I leave you with that thought."

Thanks for that, Graham. Generous as always.

New Zealand (Third Test v British and Irish Lions, Auckland, Saturday): M Muliaina; R Gear, C Smith, T Umaga (capt), S Sivivatu; L MacDonald, B Kelleher; R So'oialo, R McCaw, J Collins, A Williams, C Jack, G Somerville, K Mealamu, T Woodcock. Replacements: D Witcombe, C Johnstone, J Ryan, S Lauaki, J Marshall, L McAlister, D Howlett.

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