PM Helen Clark has said a recent arrival from Britain is a very pleasant, good natured young man. Sounds like Clive Woodward, but actually she was talking about Prince William. Wills has just dropped in, mainly to boost the major New Zealand sport of water polo - opening a new centre in west Auckland - but also to watch some minor rugby matches. He will be carrying out his first solo public engagements and, given the Lions' performance in the first test, is probably looking forward to visiting a primary school in Arrowtown as much as going to the games. As the future head of state of New Zealand as well as Britain, he has a good claim to support the All Blacks and his advisers should perhaps alert him to this to keep his spirits up while he's in the country.
Manawatu’s embarrassing 109-6 loss last night has to raise some questions about the number of games on the tour and whether there is any point the Lions playing second division teams, or indeed anyone outside the top six provinces. An 11-match tour may be too much for all but the most die-hard fan, and interest in the mid-week games appears to have waned as the tour has gone on, particularly now the tests are underway. The Lions may not have been spectacular until last night, but they have won every provincial game fairly comfortably. Perhaps a seven or eight game tour, with three tests, NZ Maori and three or four of the leading provinces – with as many of their main players as possible – would make more sense.
As for the second test on Saturday, what is it with Graham Henry and wings? First 27 test tries Rokocoko gets the boot, now 36 try Howlett is also waved goodbye. Sivivatu better get scoring at an even quicker rate before Smiler has enough of him too.
The most dreaded sentence that can be delivered to any British or Irish rugby player currently enjoying their northern summer holiday: "Clive Woodward's on the phone." The latest poor soul to be dragged halfway across the world to sit on the bench on a cold winter night with little hope of getting in the test side to be thrashed by the All Blacks is Jason White. The Scottish lock's inclusion brings the total number of players to have graced the touring squad to 51. What's the point? Discounting tonight's game against the mighty Manawatu, there's only three matches to go.
The most interesting thing to note about his inclusion is that his height, according to the press release from the Lions camp, is not merely 1.95 or 1.96m, it is 1.9558m. Do they really want to be giving the opposition scrum such vital details as the extra .0058 of a metre he will have over them if he gets to come on for 12 minutes at some point?
Cynics, shocking people that they are, might suggest that White and Welshman Brent Cockbain's late inclusion, plus the awarding of the captaincy following O'Driscoll's exit to Gareth Thomas - also of Wales - is a somewhat late positive discrimination policy towards the disgruntled Celtic nations.
Is there anything to talk about today? Ah yes, THAT tackle. Perhaps inevitably, fans seem to be largely split down national lines. The British and Irish are generally taking the view that it was "sickening", "cynical", "disgraceful", while many New Zealanders suspect some Woodward and Campbell spin-doctoring to divert attention from the Lions getting a thrashing. They point out rugby is a hard, contact sport. (See link to readers' comments at the bottom of this page.)
So, was it a foul, dangerous tackle? Probably, the video replays suggest.
Should Umaga and Mealamu have been cited to answer the charge? Yep.
Did it affect the outcome of the game? Nope, the All Blacks were in a different class, regardless of the tourists losing their captain.
Are Woodward and Campbell playing spin tricks to divert attention? Yep, but that doesn't necessarily make their case invalid.
Will it affect the rest of the tour? Afraid so. The atmosphere will be tense on Saturday night in Wellington and could spill over if Australian referee Andrew Cole doesn't keep a grip on the game.
Could this end up helping the Lions? Maybe. It could give them something to unite around and it should force Woodward into some serious changes. The question remains though whether he has the depth in his squad to put together a side able to genuinely challenge the All Blacks. If he can't, as one reader suggests today, their anthem for the second test should be changed from the current dirge to that old classic (slightly modified) "The Lions sleep tonight".
Sir Clive's secret weapon turned out along the same lines as Finance Minister Michael Cullen's Budget tax-cut secret then - pretty much non-existent. The Lions' attacking play had all the usefulness of an extra 67 cents a week in your pocket, and Woodward isn't even running for re-election. Two more weeks, two more defeats at this rate, and he sails off to his new job in soccer. Betting the mortgage on 3-0 suddenly doesn't look such a silly idea (see 23 June blog below). He may rip up the plan and draft in the Welsh. Or he might send out for more elderly English reinforcements. Is Martin Johnson in town yet? Bill Beaumont definitely is, maybe he could pull on the shirt again.
As the real battle finally draws near, the cliches go into overdrive. The BBC website has an interesting animal metaphor on the go – "The Lions will lock horns with the All Blacks." Some kind of strange rugby genetic engineering? Meanwhile, at the Daily Mirror, Lions kickers Wilkinson and Jones are going to "put the boot in". The Mirror also thinks some of the All Blacks’ names need jazzing up, referring to "Danny Carter". As long as Danny has more than his boxers on for the freezing weather heading for Christchurch he should be OK, even with his new name.
The time has come for a coup. The person to be overthrown? Freddie Parker, the self-proclaimed leader of the Barmy Army. His face and voice are becoming all too common on New Zealand TV and radio, spouting about having a great time… drink beer… Lions to win… blah blah. With the massed ranks of British and Irish supporters now flowing into Christchurch, there must be plenty of firepower to get rid of Freddie. In case any would be coup-plotters are unsure whether to sign up or not, here are some words of genius from the man himself, quoted in Rugby News: "We’ve got a stage and a spa bath to ease the stresses and strains and we’re going to have some fun with it. You never know who’s going to be inside! It’s all about having fun… I don’t do this for money, I do this for love and I think I’ve got the best job in the world – I hope for ever."
So the Brits and Irish aren't all that ecstatic with Sir Clive's selection then. Or more specifically, the Welsh, the Scottish, and the Irish (especially the Welsh). A selection of comments from nzherald.co.nz readers: "Digusted", "Astonishing. Baffling", and just plain "Rubbish". (See link to a selection of readers' comments at the bottom of this page.) The omission of Henson remains a key bugbear, and many on both sides of the world are predicting a 3-0 series win to the All Blacks. Dare it be mentioned that the much derided Woodward was much derided before the last World Cup, and that he went home with the trophy. Anything but a New Zealand win in Christchurch will be a shock, but anyone betting the mortgage against this man is brave or foolish.
The Lions anthem, the power of Four, has raised its ugly head again. Funnily enough, it just doesn’t seem to be catching on, particularly as no-one knows the words. A Lions fan suggests an alternative - adopting the Crazy Frog ringtone which made it to the top of the British charts with its amusing/annoying version of 80s hit Axel F. (Listen to the Crazy Frog using the link at the bottom of this page.) Got to be an improvement.
It's yet to be seen if the Lions team just announced will be as popular as the Crazy Frog. Possibly not. But it's good to see Clive found a spot for Jonny at second five-eighths. Some might suggest he would get him in anywhere, even at prop if necessary. He'd still be able to take place kicks from there after all. A system like American Football where the kicker just comes on when needed would have been even better.
National unity is always the best way of securing victory against a foreign enemy. Which is presumably why Graham Henry has taken the entirely non-controversial step of giving Justin Marshall a starting place in Saturday's test team. This would be the same Justin Marshall who a month ago was telling the Herald on Sunday: "I have got to weigh up whether I'm going to be selected and whether my heart is in it. The selectors have to decide whether they want me and I have to decide whether or not I want to be involved."
Initial reaction from the fans include: "You've got to be kidding" and "What the hell is wrong with the top brass?", with some suggesting Marshall's outburst allowed him to force his way into the team. (See link to readers' comments at the bottom of this page.) Can we then expect some four-letter outbursts directed in Clive Woodward's direction from the also-rans of the Lions squad picked to play in Invercargill tonight? The poor unfortunates must be thinking the shortest day of the year can't be short enough and that knocking it on the head about 7pm would suit them. Their best chance of a test place, short of Marshall-style guerrilla tactics, would appear to be the first team being struck down with Welly-belly before the second test in the capital.
Currently second in line for the Most Pay for the Least Contribution to the Tour Award is the Lions’ Gareth Cooper, who has played a grand total of three minutes so far as a replacement against Taranaki. But in pole position is TV3 pundit and former All Black Frank Bunce, who has seen plenty of games in the commentary box but disappears for minutes on end before finally returning when prompted only to give an inane comment. Being a great on the pitch doesn’t necessarily make you a great behind the microphone and Bunce might have to start taking a leaf out of the Lions’ book and go for effort and grit over flair.
Meanwhile, any All Blacks thinking a series of stand out performances in the tests would put them in line for the top Halberg Award at the end of the season can think again after Michael Campbell’s victory in the US Open golf today. Campbell can pretty much start booking his place on the winning rostrum already. Both sets of players, though, may enjoy another sport dominating the domestic headlines for a couple of days.
The Lions' game plan has finally become clear after last night's match in Dunedin. The pressure of leading early on was obviously too much in the first game of the tour against Bay of Plenty, where they flew out of the traps to lead 17-0 only to almost blow it. So they scrapped that idea and, putting aside the slight blemish of losing to the NZ Maori, have adopted a different tactic ever since. This is to be rubbish in the first half, knock-on a lot and drop the ball in good scoring opportunities (after all it worked for England in the World Cup final with Ben Kay's infamous drop which could have cost so dearly). Then as the game goes on they gradually wake up and push through to win in the end. Jet-lag can't really be blamed for this late awakening as the squad, except those who fly home to be with their pregnant wives twice a week, have been in the NZ time zone for some time now. Set those alarm clocks early next week, boys, cause the All Blacks might be a little less forgiving of early dosing.
The British media have been at work, telling the hordes back home of the apparent fisticuffs in training between Scotland hooker Gordon Bulloch and Ireland prop John Hayes. Under the headlines 'Lions bust-up' (Daily Mail), 'Lions in punch-up' (The Sun), and 'Lions have a ruck ... with each other!' (The Mirror), the tale of violent excess was laid out. Only Clive Woodward says it's not actually true. It was a quick knock of heads and no big deal, he says. And he tells us he is always open and honest with the media, so that's all settled then.
Except that the travelling press aren't apparently all that happy with him, complaining that they aren't getting access to players. Woodward met senior journalists and arranged some hasty, some might say token, interviews with members of the squad. Who would of thought it - put 50 journalists in hotels together, pit them against Woodward and Alastair Campbell, and watch it all get tetchy.
The debate continues as to whether New Zealanders are or are not overly rugby-obsessed. Compare and contrast these comments from All Black teammates asked questions by schoolkids:
Jerry Collins, asked what it was like to wear the All Blacks jersey for the first time: "Time stands still. You can't hear anything. It's like before you're going to die."
Justin Marshall, asked if rugby plays too large a part in NZ: "I think it has a bigger bearing than it should. I've come home from two World Cups and it's like the country's almost died. The country needs to grow up a little bit."
Team harmony on the message there then. You can always bet on Marshall. (Read Carroll Du Chateau's full article on the All Blacks facing schoolkids' questions using the link at the bottom of this page.)
First there was the All Blacks, then there was the Black Ferns (women's rugby), Black Caps (cricket), All Whites (soccer), and so on. Plus there was the brilliant decision to name both the men's and women's hockey teams the Black Sticks (see May 12 blog). Well now, and this - believe it or not - is actually true, the NZ badminton team want a name. The suggestion: The Black Cocks. What would Jerry Collins say if asked what it was like to wear a jersey emblazoned with that logo for the first time? Not so much that you thought you were going to die, more that you'd like to.
Recent results have sent confidence soaring on NZ internet chatrooms, with predictions of 40 to 50 point wins for the All Blacks in the tests. Lions captain Brian O'Driscoll is also coming in for a hammering. One poster on the MSN NZ site says: "In my humble opinion he only looks good when playing up north because of the poor rugby they play. If he was a Kiwi he might make an NPC team but nothing more." Then a Lions fan logs on and - predictably - it all turns ugly until someone points out: "It's pointless arguing on the internet... no one ever wins!" Someone on the BBC site picks up the same point, signing off with: "What fun we've had discussing. And guess what? Nothing's gonna change. Hoorah for us!"
If all this web chatter does prove anything, which is unlikely, it's that though there are many more chatrooms in the UK, Lions fans can't help getting involved in the NZ ones - including the one on this site (see link at the bottom of the page). While they're very welcome, it does raise the question of whether their well-oiled publicity machine has even spread to the supporters. Is the thinking that if the game can't be won on the pitch, at least victory by numbers can be achieved on the pages of the newspapers, on the internet and on talkback radio?
News that Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf will be confined to Auckland during his visit to New Zealand later this week because Wellington is booked out by Lions fans will no doubt come as a major blow to him and his entourage. And while there are still tickets available for the Otago game on Saturday night, there don't appear to be any flights available into Dunedin that day. So, unless the RNZAF can help out, Pervez may have to make do with delayed coverage on TV3 on a 14-inch in his hotel room.
It seems there is a danger of the Barmy Army splintering into factions. The name itself provokes anger among some tourists as they attach it only to the organisation run by Freddie Parker and his mates, while in NZ it is used as a general term for all Lions fans. To prevent open red-on-red warfare among travelling supporters perhaps we should put two sets of 15 men on a pitch – one from the "official" Barmy Army, the other from the non-aligned fans - and let them slug it out until a winner emerges. Throw in an oval ball and there could be a sport in it somewhere.
The release of the All Blacks squad this morning extinguishes any (very) faint hope that there might have been a late spot for a certain Carlos Spencer. The first five-eighth spot looks vulnerable should Dan Carter get injured. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have Carlos sitting on the bench in case a bit of inspiration was needed in the last 20 minutes? But it turns out Graham Henry isn’t one for such sentimentality – shock.
Joe Rokocoko may have been abandoned by the All Blacks selectors in favour of his cousin Sitiveni Sivivatu, but no-one told the announcer at North Harbour stadium, who last night excitedly attributed him one of Siti’s tries. Which would be clever even with Rokocoko's pace as he has been in exile at the sevens in Europe.
Someone needs to tell Tana Umaga there's a touring side in the country, and that he's going to have to play them soon. He declared after the Lions first match against Bay of Plenty that he hadn't seen the game because he was spending time with family (none of whom would be interested in rugby presumably), and now he's revealed he didn't see the Taranaki match either. Apparently Byron Kelleher was to blame - organising a dinner at the same time as he didn't realise it was on. Justin Marshall's best chance of a game in the tests could be simply to turn up at the stadium - Kelleher may well be out having a bite to eat somewhere at the time.
Quote of the month - so far - comes from TV One weatherman, former water polo international (honest), and all-round character Brendan Horan. With his characteristic wide-beam grin he declared: "The weather recently has been as ugly as the Lions' front row." Good on ya, Brendan, keep 'em coming.
The large number of English players in the Lions squad, including the call-up of Simon Shaw to replace Mal O'Kelly, seems to be causing increasing discontent in the Celtic nations. Welsh team manager Alan Phillips has expressed disappointment that Brent Cockbain wasn't called up, and fans in both Scotland and Wales have told nzherald.co.nz that they will be backing the All Blacks in the tests. Drastic measures. How many Auckland players would have to be in the New Zealand side before Cantabrians would start backing the Lions?
Given the growing feeling that the Barmy Army is starting to dominate the tour, there is only one way for New Zealanders to fight back: Dust off those camper vans, get out the All Blacks shirts, book six weeks off work, and get out on the road. It is time for the Kombi Nation (see link at bottom of page) to live up to its name and get the battle of the touring armies under way.
Well done to the Bay for showing what tour matches are all about. At 17-0 down after 11 minutes it could have turned into an embarrassing rout. The onus is on the other provinces now to match their efforts. Meanwhile, it was nice of O’Gara to issue an 80 minute-long offer to stand aside in the first five eighth position, Jonny must have slipped him a few dollars.
Community newspaper The Aucklander suggests some novel ways to ensure All Black victories in the tests:
Get MAF to ban all imports of the Barmy Army's favourite food - black pudding (an army marches on its stomach).
Get the IRB to reduce the score for penalties to two points, cutting off the Lions' best attacking move.
Just as L&P is world famous in New Zealand, similar soft drink Irn Bru is obviously globally popular in Scotland. A poster on www.lions-tour.com, who is about to set off for NZ, makes a desperate plea to know if he can get his tartan fizzy down in the Pacific. "Hopefully I'll be able to find some, or its gonna be five weeks of hangover for me," he says desperately. Apparently shops for ex-pats, such as the one in Browns Bay, Auckland, can help out. Thank God for that.
The Barmy Army's base camps around the country tell their own tale of beer, bellies and overnight stop-outs in unglamorous locations. The Loaded Hog in Wellington conjures an image, the Railway Station in Dunedin no doubt has comfy benches for a kip, and Legends in Christchurch will be home for six days to those footsoldiers who are themselves legends in their own liquid lunchtime.
Lions squad manager Bill Beaumont was given no room for doubt about who was in charge of the tour party at the public training session in Auckland yesterday. Taking a breather on a touchline bench at North Harbour stadium, he was spotted by Alastair Campbell who ordered him up to sign autographs for waiting schoolkids.
In Campbell's favour, you have to hand it to him for keeping a straight face while being asked strange questions in a strange way by a man called Holmes on TV the night before.