29 Jun

Episode 8: The Manawatu Training Run
by Paul Waite
29 Jun 2005

The Lions second stringers had been told by Clive that they were all in line for potential test call-up prior to this game against second division Manawatu. The old “test places are up for grabs lads!” catch-cry.

A few of you will have seen the Tui ads around the country, so you’ll know what I mean when I say “yeah right”.

Despite the awful display last weekend, I can’t see Clive back-tracking to the extent predicted and making wholesale changes. Obviously some are enforced – the injuries to BOD and Hill, and the banning of Grewcock for example. But apart from those positions, Clive is much more likely to use the Power of the Second Chance, alloyed with some suitably spiced-up rhetoric over the “O’Driscoll Incident” to motivate his team to the heights of frenzy which will be required to compete with the All Black machine this coming Saturday night.

Looking at the team which lovingly drubbed poor little Manawatu, I’d say Robinson would still be in the test XV, but on the wing instead of fullback — move Lewsey back there. On the other wing the sizzling form of Welsh pocket dynamo Shane Williams gives him a chance, and Donncha O’Callaghan looked good at lock and would do a better job than Grewcock did any day of the week, since he doesn’t come with any of the infringement baggage that Danny has.

In the loose-forwards the quandry is whether Clive will still persevere with Neil Back, who has been largely anonymous in every game he’s played since being talked up by the Knight Errant as being “as good as Richie McCaw”. The alternative is the more dynamic Lewis Moody, but we’ll just have to see.

In the pack, Clive will probably put Steve Thompson in the starting XV this time. Although his lineout throwing is known to be flaky, it isn’t as flaky as Byrne’s was last week, and he will also beef up the scrummaging which looked under pressure against the All Blacks.

But this 109-6 blowout against weak opposition came at a good time for the Lions. It has helped draw a line under the previous week, and has brought them together again in a united enterprise. The score didn’t matter so much as the performance, which was high calibre and did the home team the honour of trying 100% for the whole 80 minutes. After the game the Lions went into the Manawatu dressing room and swapped kit, then had a beer with the local lads – an excellent gesture which the Manawatu guys will treasure, and one which I’m sure the Lions boys enjoyed in equal measure.

So we’re all set up for the coming Saturday, which was always going to be the key-stone of this tour. The Lions have to win to keep their hopes alive, and they are hurting badly after humiliating themselves last week.

The All Blacks for their part have to attempt to forget about last week. Any thoughts that they are going to run oodles of tries past these guys on a drier track have to be put aside, or they will suffer the consequences awaiting all who become complacent.

The big question is, can the Lions play well enough as a team to compete and win over 80 minutes of hard rugby? Passion and hurt is only likely to last half a game, if that, and more is required. They will have to bring together all of the technical issues which plagued them last week – the lineout being the most obvious, but also the competition at the breakdown was poor, and so was the midfield defence and the whole of the backline attack looked toothless.

The lineout woes are the easiest to fix. These are canny professional players and know what’s required. Looking back to last Saturday, first the tires got puctured and then the wheels fell off early on, and there wasn’t a spare. But they aren’t really as bad as it looked, and a lot of practice this week will see them right.

The competition at the breakdown is harder. If they persist with Back, and having lost Richard Hill, the Lions look threadbare here. Ryan Jones simply must start this test as the form No.8. Corry looks good at No.6, and I’d prefer the more energetic Moody as openside, or maybe Clive will play both Back and Moody. We will see.

In the backs, new skipper Gareth Jenkins will presumably move in to play centre, vacated by the unfortunate Brian O’Driscoll. Inside him, I would trust that the Lions Brains Trust have seen enough of the Jones/Wilkinson partnership to consign it to the “Seemed A Good Idea At The Time” bin. I’m picking Wilkinson will start as the No.10, with Jones on the bench, and hopefully some sense will prevail and he will have Gavin Henson outside him. At scrumhalf, I’m picking Clive will revert to stalwart Matt Dawson especially if Wilkinson is wearing No.10, though Peel would be my choice.

The back three should see Lewsey back at fullback, where he is both a very solid defender and dangerous running the ball back, and combining in the backline. I’d assume Woodward’s little favourite Jason Robinson will be on the wing this week, and on the other wing, vacated by Jenkins, possibly Shane Williams.

Things are building to the crunch.

See you at the Caketin!

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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