Can Clive turn it around?

THERE ARE occasions in sport when you don’t always get what you deserve. So inept was the performance from the Lions on Saturday, that this wasn’t one of them.

When the forecasters confirmed on Friday that this test would be played in driving rain, one felt that the advantage had shifted to the tourists. In the end, all it did was save their blushes. In better conditions New Zealand would have passed the 40-point mark.

After all the hype and excitement in the build up to this series over the last year, the outcome from a Lions perspective could not have been worse. The task now seems nigh impossible. The loss of captain Brian O’Driscoll is a huge blow and the circumstances surrounding the injury have not reflected well on New Zealand captain Tana Umaga.

Once again, a southern hemisphere independent commissioner has ruled out foul play on a Lions player. Four years ago in Australia, Richard Hill was taken out in an incident which turned the series. The New Zealand commissioner found that Aussie centre Nathan Gray had no case to answer.

With O’Driscoll, Richard Hill and Tom Shanklin all ruled out of the tour within hours of each other due to injury, and Danny Grewcock suspended for biting an opponent, it was a thoroughly miserable day for Clive Woodward and his squad.

On the evidence of the tour so far, it was a disaster waiting to happen. All the concerns expressed prior to this opening test have been borne out. For some reason, this group has failed to ignite where it matters most - on the field of play.

Traditionally, the opening test sees the Lions ahead of their opponents both in terms of game time and organisation. Because of the questionable selection policy implemented to date, the Lions had neither.

The mantra for this tour has been ‘The Power of Four’ but on Saturday, Clive Woodward only chose to implement ‘The Power of One’. Over the course of the 80 minutes, 12 of England’s World Cup winning side featured. Worthy champions two years ago, there has been sufficient evidence since then to suggest many are past their best. Finishing fourth in this year’s Six Nations was a case in point.

In selecting the side for the opening test, Woodward gambled on experience over form and has paid a heavy price. The decision to select both Stephen Jones and Jonny Wilkinson in tandem also backfired.

Out-half is the pivotal position on the field. The player in the No 10 jersey must have the authority to run the game. By picking both Jones and Wilkinson, this authority was diluted with neither taking command. In the end, both players suffered.

By way of contrast, Graham Henry’s selection was spot-on. Leon McDonald and Justin Marshall were tailor-made for the conditions and both had big games.

The biggest disappointment was the manner in which the Lions lineout fell apart. Shane Byrne had won selection over Steve Thompson by virtue of his consistency in that aspect of his play but on Saturday it went horribly wrong for him. Outside of his throwing, the lack of co-ordination between jumpers and lifters was very difficult to understand. In the lineout that led to Ali Williams’ decisive opening try, no Lions jumper left the ground.

There wasn’t a dog on the Christchurch streets who didn’t know the Lions game plan for this match. All week they had spoken of dominating the set piece and playing field position. That was like a red rag to the New Zealand front five. The response was spectacular. Chris Jack was outstanding from start to finish and his second row partner Williams also produced when the need was greatest.

In the build-up to this contest, I had a sneaking suspicion that the power of the Lions’ front five had been exaggerated in their performances against Otago and Wellington. With the All Black forwards unavailable for selection, the Lions dominated with ease. In the more meaningful challenges against both Argentina and the New Zealand Maori, the Lions forward unit was found wanting.

Graham Henry had his homework done and looked to attack the Lions at source. The suggestion that the New Zealand forwards would be smashed in front of their home crowd was the spur their pack needed.

Despite the adverse weather conditions, their scrum stood up well and their lineout was a revelation. With Jack and Williams creating havoc on the Lions throw, they also managed to win their own ball with ease, despite the conditions, losing just one throughout the contest. Deprived of a decent platform up front, the Lions failed to implement their kicking game and could not control field position.

Throughout the tour there has been a total lack of creativity behind the scrum. Even though they only trailed by 11 points at half time, one couldn’t see where a Lions try would come from.

With O’Driscoll off the field, the centre combination of Will Greenwood and Wilkinson lacked the pace and stepping ability to break the gain line. It also lacked a physical presence to present a target for the back row. In this respect, Shane Horgan would have been a better option off the bench.

The decision to pick Jason Robinson at full back was also exposed. His lack of a kicking game in the weather conditions was a severe handicap. Stubbornly, Woodward initially placed Gareth Thomas at full back instead of Josh Lewsey who has excelled in this position in recent games.

The Lions management has a massive job before the second test in Wellington next Saturday. It’s just as well they face second division opposition in Manawatu tomorrow. The 24 hour delay in the announcement of that team suggests Woodward is preparing to restructure the side.

Up front, the likes of Andrew Sheridan, Simon Easterby, Ryan Jones and Lewis Moody should re-enter the equation and the suspension of Grewcock must surely present an opportunity for Donncha O’Callaghan to start ahead of Ben Kay.

Behind the scrum, Gavin Henson, Geordan Murphy and Shane Williams will all enter the picture. With five weeks to build for the first test, Woodward got the preparation and selection wrong.

Time is now against him in his efforts to turn the tide.

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