22 Jun

Of Mice and Bogeymen
by Don Christie
22 Jun 2005

Vernon Pugh is dead. John O’Neil has left the fold. John Hart is but a bad sad memory. The bogey men of New Zealand rugby, the ones we scare our kids with, are vanquished. Well, almost all of them.

SIR Clive Woodward, the confident and successful Englishman remains, grinning ghoulishly into our nightmares. After large dollops of cold shoulder he has finally been given the helm of the what should be the best team in the world. For what seems like decades Clive Woodward has been telling all and sundry that he should be Lions coach instead of the Lions coach. Well, his John Hart like persistence has finally paid off, his dreams have come true, along with a $30 million budget and the strongest group of players from the contributing nations for a long while.

We should, right now, be salivating at the thought of taking on the best of the Welsh, Irish, English and Scots. The English won the world cup only two short years ago, the Welsh were rampant in this year’s Six Nations tournament, they come within an ace of beating the All Blacks in December, and the Irish have been extremely competitive as well. Only the Scots are struggling these days.

So what are the omens for the first test? Plenty Celtic flair? Matched with unusually high levels of skill, ferocious tackling and commitment? Steadied by some solid England scrummaging and goal kicking (because, after all that is *still* the only thing they really excel at)? In other words an almost unbeatable unit.

Well, actually, no.

Sir Clive’s status as the last remaining bogeyman of the All Black fan no longer bears scrutiny. Throughout an incredibly turgid and extremely disappointing series of provincial games we have scared ourselves with thoughts of what might be. What if he selects that Welsh back line and the Celtic loosies? Think of the tricky beguiling magic a skilled coach might be able to produce from the prodigious talent at hand?

It has got to the stage that I can no longer envisage this scenario, not in my wildest dreams, let alone worst nightmares. The Lions have stuttered and stumbled in their provincial games, I thought the nadir had come last Wednesday evening at the Cake Tin where, for the first time in my life I regretted turning up in person to watch a game of rugby. But when I saw the Lion’s squad and test team selection I finally knew that the chickens had come to roost. The truth is out there.

The Lions coach has had his comfort zone shattered. His team is experiencing levels of dissent unheard of even in Graham Henry’s time. For all his historic talk of running rugby and 15 man game he has never, ever been successful with that approach. So instead of producing something greater than the sum of the parts he is retrenching to familiar territory. Out go those scarily skillful Welsh, in come the dependable, predictable, ponderous players with whom he has spent so much time over the years. The All Blacks have beaten that lot convincingly, twice in the last twelve months. No wonder the Lions fans a spluttering, particularly those from three of the four countries.

The All Blacks, as the saying goes, have nothing to fear except fear itself, and even fear is a commodity in short supply from our last standing bogeyman…

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