Woodward's Lions search for redemption

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The Independent Online

Seven days after the most impotent Lions Test performance in more than 20 years, Sir Clive Woodward finds himself playing for the highest stakes imaginable - the stakes of reputation and legacy. He did not have to take on this tour; indeed, a lesser man would already be wishing he had avoided it like the plague. But Woodward is congenitally incapable of passing up a challenge, so here, in the toughest rugby environment of them all, he finds himself seated at the big table, waiting for the last hand to be dealt.

With the best will in the world, it is difficult to see how even he can turn last week's depressingly ineffectual display on its head and summon sufficient resources to see off an exceptional All Black combination. The most likely outcome is that his wholly new and profoundly inexperienced side will play out of their collective skin before slipping, angrily rather than gently, into that good night, one week earlier than they would have liked. It is perfectly possible they will lose rather more heavily than they deserve.

Shane Williams, Gavin Henson, Donncha O'Callaghan, Lewis Moody, Ryan Jones - each and every one them merits his place in a starting line-up showing 11 changes, four of them positional, from the elderly combination erroneously chosen to represent the British Isles in Christchurch last Saturday. Of the other newcomers, Steve Thompson is included almost by default, his rival hookers on the trip having failed to fire a shot, while Simon Easterby, the Ireland flanker, can consider himself extremely fortunate to have evicted Martin Corry from the back row. Corry has shouldered a greater burden than anyone on this trip, and has given every last drop of sweat. He deserves better than a seat on the bench.

So much for the positives and negatives of Woodward's latest selection. In a sense, the pros and cons no longer matter, for these Lions inhabit regions of mind and body way beyond the minutiae of the game. Today is all about the abstractions of international sport - about heart and soul, about pride, about honour. The tourists were humiliated in the first Test, none more so than Woodward himself. Today, redemption is what they seek.

It is a measure of the scale of last week's reverse that few people in these parts have mentioned even the possibility of the Lions winning this series from one down, not simply because the All Blacks have not lost a home rubber from one-nil up since they were mugged by the Springboks in 1937, but because the tourists have offered so little in the basic art of try-scoring. True, they put 17 of the things past Manawatu on Tuesday, but that was in a non-contest. When the heat has been on, the Lions have gone cold on us.

Woodward knows it, too. Having arrived here in a state of full-blown confidence, secure in his belief that he would emulate the great Carwyn James by winning a series in New Zealand and, as a result, establish himself as the most successful coach in rugby history, he has changed before our very eyes. Yesterday, he was far less forthcoming than usual in his eve-of-Test pronouncements. At times, he seemed on the brink of a concession.

"Will this new side handle the pressure? I don't know," he admitted. "We can sit here and talk theory all day long, but in the end, we'll find out the answer to that question during the game."

Asked whether the younger elements up front might sacrifice precision on the altar of pumped-up emotion and find themselves cut to pieces by an All Black side full of clarity and technical know-how, he replied: "It's conceivable, I suppose. I hope it doesn't happen. We picked an experienced pack last week and got undone. I had to make changes, and I've made them."

This was not the bullish, supremely optimistic coach of England's glory days - or even England's less than glorious days, which, before the decisive charge towards the World Cup victory in Australia in 2003, were not infrequent. This was a man chastened by events in Christchurch, when his selectorial folly was exposed in all its sporting horror. Defeat here, even an honourable one, will leave him hanging from the nearest gallows, at the mercy of more critics than he ever imagined he had.

The New Zealanders are already feeling smug about themselves. Graham Henry, their head coach, has made three changes he did not have to make - an exercise in mind-game opportunism aimed at belittling the Lions.

Yesterday, he was utterly dismissive of the furore surrounding the illegal tackle perpetrated last weekend by Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu that ended Brian O'Driscoll's tour a mere 40 seconds into its business end. "Have we used the newspaper reports as motivation? There isn't enough wall space in our dressing-room to hold that amount of crap," he said.

Perhaps the All Blacks will pay for their complacency today - after all, they lose in this city more often than anywhere else in New Zealand. That is not saying much, though: 15 defeats in 48 Tests since 1904 is not exactly an object lesson in vulnerability.

The more likely scenario is of a series-clinching victory. Anything else will represent one of the great victories in the annals of the Lions. Indeed, it will border on the miraculous.

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