Lions’ pride is at stake
Can the tourists win their first series in New Zealand since 1971?
Captained by the Welshman Sam Warburton, the British and Irish Lions recently arrived in New Zealand, a country once described by former Lions coach Ian McGeechan as "one huge rugby field".
McGeechan wasn’t being hyperbolic, for rugby is everywhere in this fabled green land. When the Lions aren’t playing it, they’ll be thinking about it. And when they aren’t thinking about it they’ll be reminded by perky Kiwi fans that they haven’t won there since 1971, a time when men didn’t gel their hair, and bell bottoms were commonly the size of downtown Wellington.
Should such fans be tolerated enough to warm to their theme, they’ll also point out that no New Zealand Super Rugby side have lost to Australian or SA opposition at home this year. To say New Zealand rugby is in rude health is to state the annoyingly obvious, a fact underscored by the Lions’ tetchy 13-7 win against the NZ Provincial Barbarians in their tour opener 10 days ago.
Jonny Wilkinson has urged coach Gatland to keep things simple and structured this time around — sound advice
Warburton and his coach, Warren Gatland, a Kiwi who has coached Wales for the past 10 years, have to win twice to bring back the series. They are embarking on a crusade, a voyage to the end of the earth and a pilgrimage all rolled into one.
The Lions were last in New Zealand in 2005 and the tour started with similarly high expectations. Clive Woodward had won the World Cup in Australia with England two years before, and six months prior to departure he was knighted by the Queen.
With a penchant for bloated support staff, Sir Clive took a small-sized Victorian expedition down south, with his 44-player squad being the largest Lions party ever assembled. His entourage featured Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former spin doctor, who came, according to one Fleet Street hack, with "more baggage than Gatwick". Woodward, thorough-going and assiduous in his planning, apparently had all bases covered. He and his team weren’t going to die wondering.
And then something rotten happened. In the opening minutes of the first test in Christchurch, Brian O’Driscoll, the Lions skipper, was upended by Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga and dropped onto the turf. The incident was caught by the cameras but not by the French referee, Joel Jutge, who was following the course of the ball elsewhere. The spear tackle could have broken O’Driscoll’s neck. In the event, it dislocated his shoulder, the injury being severe enough to end his tour, forcing Woodward to make Gareth Thomas skipper.
French rugby fans divide players into piano movers and piano players; and O’Driscoll was a bit of both. He never shirked from a physical challenge but he could, proverbially speaking, tickle those ivories like a Fijian high-stepper. He was a skipper, an inventor and a talisman all in one, prompting his roommate in 2005, Welshman Shane Williams, to say before he was injured: "It was wonderful playing outside him — he put me into spaces I’d never been in before." With O’Driscoll out of the tour due to Umaga and Mealamu’s cynicism, the All Blacks were effectively a try to the good. The incident smouldered — due in no small part to Campbell stoking the fires — and in later years O’Driscoll wrote in his autobiography that he was upset that Umaga never phoned him to commiserate.
Eventually he did, but the exchange went poorly. Christmas cards were not exchanged.
In the event, the Lions lost 10 lineouts in Christchurch. Their calling was a shambles, they never recovered from O’Driscoll being stretchered off and were beaten 21-3, which didn’t provide much upside for a serial dissembler like Campbell, who was compared on tour to Humpty Dumpty who famously said: "When I use a word, it means whatever I want it to mean."
Looking back on the 2005 tour and its discontents recently, The Guardian’s Richard Williams has written about Woodward and Campbell being "mesmerised by self-regard". For all his attention to detail, Sir Clive’s planning had backfired terribly.
Making 11 changes for the second test, it only got worse. Dan Carter, possibly piqued by all the hullabaloo over O’Driscoll being the best player in the world, brought his A-game to Wellington, scoring 33 of his team’s points as the Blackness romped to a 48-18 victory, thereby taking the series. The Lions were beaten 38-19 in the third test, with Sir Clive’s reputation taking a severe beating. Campbell insisted on giving a pep-talk in a team meeting and Paul O’Connell, the Irish lock with a normally deliciously dry sense of humour, almost punched him for his troubles. The Lions couldn’t see the wood for the New Zealand trees.
Reflecting on the mayhem, Jonny Wilkinson has lately described the 2005 tour "like chaos that I’d never seen before". Given that he’s experienced Lions lows, Wilkinson has urged Gatland to keep things simple and structured this time around — sound advice.
This means a forward-orientated mauling game with a strong scrum and lineout base. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, the Irish halfback pairing, were part of the Irish side which beat the All Blacks in Chicago six months ago, and they will need to dictate matters at outside half, should they start, which most expect them to do. England’s Owen Farrell will in all likelihood be on Sexton’s right shoulder, while things look undecided as far as the second centre is concerned — a possible problem — with the England pair Jonathan Joseph and Ben Te’o both in the mix.
Gatland hasn’t had a great amount of time in which to prepare so, once again, a basic template looks prudent. For Martin Johnson, who toured SA when the Lions won here in 1997, all the talk of protein shakes and ice baths — the kind of talk the Lions heard much of in 2005, therefore — is bunk. The Lions must find themselves, put aside their national differences, and do so quickly. "What ultimately gets you through is your mentality," says Johnson.
The portents, after the Lions’ last win in New Zealand, are interesting, and have been enhanced by their morale-boosting 12-3 win over the Crusaders on Saturday. The Five Nations tournament preceding the tour was tight, with France drawing with both Ireland and England in 1971, and it was similarly competitive earlier this year. England won (the Six Nations) this time round but Ireland, Scotland and France all won three matches and were locked on the same number of points.
British rugby is in a phase of technical excellence, significant investment and uppity health. However, the Lions will
need to roll back the black
tide of history if they’re to prosper in New Zealand
later this month.