Friday 22 March 2019

Outdated and exposed

Eddie Butler

FOR the past six weeks Clive Woodward has been savaged in the media. Part of the reason the media make him such a target is because he reveals very, very little.

Over a drink, a deeper frustration was visible. He has been here many times before and knows what to expect. But he does not enjoy it. "In Australia I always have a terrible time in the press. I don't mind the banter there, though, because you know there's always a bit of humour in it. Not here."

Might it have been a mistake to pursue the issue of the injury to Brian O'Driscoll? The matter had done nothing but stiffen what was already a pretty sturdy All Black resolve. "I don't give a damn if the All Blacks used the headlines to fire themselves up," replied Woodward. "We did what we did because it was the right thing to do."

Even greater frustration was reserved for referees. "It's one battle I was told not to fight. From the IRB to the RFU to the NZRFU to Bill Beaumont, they all said it wouldn't be worth trying to get neutral referees for our non-Test games."

There has been a story doing the rounds about Shane Horgan, and Steve Walsh, the referee who has been the most controversial of the home officials. Walsh was a touch-judge in the first two games. Horgan came on as a replacement against Taranaki and, according to Walsh, knocked the ball on as he tried to pick it off his toes. On Walsh's advice, a scrum was set against the Lions.

Horgan, returning to his position, told Walsh that he had kicked the ball, not knocked it on. Whereupon Walsh unleashed a volley of invective at Horgan.

So incensed was the Irishman that a meeting was held between the Lions and Walsh a day or two later. Walsh was contrition itself and, having had a run-in with England fitness coach Dave Reddin at the 2003 World Cup, recognised this propensity to launch verbal assaults at players as a weakness.

For the third game, against the Maori, Walsh was referee. And before Horgan had even touched the ball, Walsh gave him the sign of snapping fingers and thumb aimed at someone who has been talking out of turn. It was all the Lions could do afterwards to stop Horgan from going to the referee's room to exchange more than just frank views with Walsh.

For the Tests there were neutral referees, but Woodward's point is valid. The derailing of the Lions is the sworn duty of every red-blooded Kiwi citizen and Walsh has more than done his bit.

In terms of preparation for the Tests, Woodward wanted to have his team as rested as possible, but nothing can replace the game situation for revealing strengths and weaknesses, and for fine-tuning mutual understanding.

Woodward suddenly became animated. "If there's one thing I'll swear by for as long as I live, it was picking Stephen Jones and Jonny Wilkinson at 10 and 12. They were a joy to see working together in training. I really believed that if we could give them the ball they would run the game."

But a set-piece game followed by a lot of kicking was always going to be risky, I said. "Who said it was going to be a set-piece game?" retorted Woodward. "Those guys (Wilkinson and Jones) are fantastic. Their distribution is amazing. They were going to bring the best out of Josh Lewsey and Gareth Thomas and Brian O'Driscoll."

We shall never know. That's the bit that hurts. The Lions coach cannot yet bear to think of the line-out that fell to bits in Christchurch.

He will have done the mechanics of the post-mortem operation: how often the All Blacks got away with having extra players in the set piece, how bad the throws were, how confused the calls, how quickly Ali Williams and Chris Jack rose into the freezing air. But the line-out was the end of the dream and there will never be another chance for Woodward to relive it.

In fact, this whole tour never made it past the first 17 minutes. The loss of Lawrence Dallaglio was huge, and how silly it all was: a simple slip on the dewy turf in Rotorua and there was Dallaglio's ankle, staring up at its owner the wrong way round.

Then came the loss of O'Driscoll in the first Test. "You could just sense something," said Woodward. "Not panic, but confusion when he went off."

Dallaglio and O'Driscoll were seriously missed. But the fundamental issue of the tour remains, that of all the fit, happy players that travelled to New Zealand, fewer than a dozen enhanced their reputation. And two of the players that flourished, Ryan Jones and Simon Easterby, were not in Woodward's original squad of 45.

Those who have played consistently well are props Gethin Jenkins and Graham Rowntree, wing-forwards Lewis Moody and Martyn Williams, scrum-half Dwayne Peel, centre/wing/stand-in captain Gareth Thomas and wing Mark Cueto. And Josh Lewsey, who never gives up.

Others who have made an impact at times include Steve Thompson at hooker, Donncha O'Callaghan in the second row, Chris Cusiter and Matt Dawson at scrum-half, outside-halfs Charlie Hodgson and Ronan O'Gara, and full-back Geordan Murphy. That leaves a lot of players who have found the New Zealand experience a touch too daunting.

It is not a disgrace. This is a ferocious place to be at your best as a rugby player. But to win the series the Lions needed Paul O'Connell to be the new Martin Johnson. They needed Martin Corry to fill the boots of Dallaglio. They needed Michael Owen to adapt to a game of brutality, and Stephen Jones and Wilkinson to perform miracles on no possession.

It didn't happen. The Lions never found a rhythm. Does the failure imply bad coaching? Perhaps. Forwards coach Andy Robinson and backs coach Eddie O'Sullivan will not return to glowing praise. Nor will Woodward. In the race to blend the nations the conservative line was always going to be the chosen option, and that was never going to be enough.

The All Blacks looked at rugby after 2003 and decided to move forward. The Lions played a rugby that was two years out of date. And it was cruelly exposed.

Henry has outwitted and outflanked Woodward. Steve Hansen has moulded a mean All Black pack and Wayne Smith an exuberant three-quarter line. Dan Carter is the player who could steer them in two years' time to their first World Cup victory since 1987.

Before the final Test Henry left us with a final thought. "What would have happened if the Lions had faced our Super 12 teams?"

It was a rare moment of mischief from the man who very nearly won a series with the Lions in 2001. But Graham Henry is also the coach who never came close in that year to grasping what the Lions are all about. He has won the series but has yet to become one of the good guys of rugby. Clive Woodward has lost but is not yet one of the sport's bad guys. Observer

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