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A Pride Of Happy Lions.
6 June 2005, 9:24 am
The Lions, on the eve of the first rugby tour match, have vowed there will be none of the mutiny that marred their last tour four years ago.
The Lions, on the eve of the first rugby tour match, have vowed there will be none of the mutiny that marred their last tour four years ago. The 2001 Lions who lost to 1-2 to Australia are remembered for their public criticism of tour management, most notably halfback Matt Dawson's bagging of coach Graham Henry in a series of newspaper columns. He was unhappy with an exhausting training regime and the little time for the relaxation away from rugby.

On his third Lions tour, Dawson cut a contrasting figure ahead of tomorrow's match against Bay of Plenty in Rotorua, happy that management were promoting a blend of hard work on the field but fun and camaraderie off it. "The beginning of the trip, I don't think could have gone any better," he said.

"The social side of things are fantastic, you can chill out and go and have a walk or a coffee or a beer or whatever it's going to be just to unwind. Ultimately that's where we want to be, singing from the same hymn sheet."

Seventy-test veteran Dawson is on the reserve bench tomorrow behind the favourite for the No 9 Lions test jersey, Welshman Dwayne Peel. Dawson, 32, said he could do little more than produce his best at every opportunity if he was to line up against the All Blacks, now coached by Henry.

"I'll be taking anything I can get, whether it's a bench spot, a supporting role or if it's a test spot. Whatever they ask me to do, I'll be giving it absolutely everything," he said.

"Fundamentally we've got to maintain the unity we've shown so far. The way we've gelled has probably been better than the previous (Lions) tours I've been on." Coach Clive Woodward would have been delighted that every player supported the unity mantra. Perhaps the most vocal was Dawson's England teammate Josh Lewsey, who will play at fullback tomorrow. Lewsey was inspired by a team talk from midweek head coach Ian McGeechan, the Scotsman who has coached three previous Lions teams.

McGeechan told the squad the success of the tour could be measured not by the strength of the test team but by the spirit and support of the midweek players in the final week of their visit next month.

In the last tour to New Zealand in 1993, the dispirited midweek team crashed to a 10-38 loss to Waikato in their final match. "If you look at it statistically, the Lions only ever won one series here (in 1971) and that was the best ever Lions squad, " Lewsey said.

"If you have good morale then you have more chance of taking the rugby seriously and then switching off and enjoy the fantastic country for what it is. If we get that blend right, there's no reason why we can't be successful."

The Lions suffered their first blow last night when lock Malcolm O'Kelly was ruled out of the tour with an abdominal strain. England's Simon Shaw, who had been on standby, will fly out as his replacement.

Ireland's most capped international, O'Kelly was downcast after a specialist revealed that the recurrence of an old groin injury was more serious than Lions medical staff first believed. "I am obviously very disappointed that for me the tour is over. I have had this problem for a while but had managed to keep it at bay," O'Kelly said in a statement.

"I have to be philosophical and accept the judgement of the doctors. It is as well just to accept it and go home and let the coaches and players get on with the job of trying to win the series against New Zealand.

"They are a great bunch and though I am sorry I will no longer be part of it, I wish them all the best."

Shaw was called into the champion England World Cup squad as a late replacement for Danny Grewcock. He won the nod last night ahead of other possible candidates Brent Cockbain and Robert Sidoli of Wales. His inclusion lifts the number of English players in the 45-strong squad to 22.

By Daniel Gilhooly of NZPA

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