Henry calls for scrapping of midweek tour games

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The Independent Online

One narrow defeat should not, in theory, pose a significant threat to the Lions as rugby folk the world over have come to know and love them. The reality may be more alarming. Donal Lenihan and Graham Henry, the manager and coach of the 2001 vintage seen off by Australia at the weekend, believe that these four-yearly trips across the equator have become too demanding to offer any reasonable hope of success, and will recommend root and branch changes to the structure of future tours to the southern hemisphere.

Most seriously, they will propose the scrapping of most, if not all, midweek fixtures. "It may be that the way forward is to take a smaller squad of players – 28, say, rather than 37 – and play fewer games: three lead-in matches, followed by three Tests," Henry said yesterday. "The midweek matches here in Australia were particularly difficult, and I felt sorry for the players involved in them. They had to put up with inadequate preparation, and it was unfair; these are professional people who are used to building properly through the week for a weekend match. We couldn't offer them that, because of the itinerary.

"Where, in the professional era, are we going to find the time to prepare a Lions squad as thoroughly as we would like? There are a number of masters out there now – clubs, national teams, the Lions – and I'm not at all sure how we can balance them all. It is a fact of rugby life that Lions tours take place at the end of the northern hemisphere season, when players are no longer in peak condition. The same goes for the southern hemisphere nations when they come to Europe in the autumn. Without some amalgamation of the season, we are never going to achieve the ideal. But this is a rugby argument, and rugby comes second these days. Big business calls the tune now, and a common season is not in line with business demands."

Henry's fellow New Zealanders, who are scheduled to welcome the Lions in 2005, will not take kindly to a short, Saturdays-only programme. There are five Super 12 outfits in All Black country – the Canterbury Crusaders, the Waikato Chiefs, the Otago Highlanders, the Wellington Hurricanes and the Auckland Blues, who Henry coached before throwing in his lot with Wales three years ago – plus the Maori, the New Zealand Academy and a colourful array of rural provinces, all of whom would kill for a piece of the tourists. Whatever the suggestions contained in the hierarchy's end-of-tour report, New Zealand will push for a minimum of 13 games. They will probably get their way. To use Henry's own phrase, a downsizing of the next Lions tour would not be "in line with business demands".

The hierarchy will be on firmer ground when they urge a ban on players writing newspaper columns during future tours. The bad feeling generated by the journalistic exploits of Messrs Dawson and Healey was still evident yesterday as the 50-odd members of the party went their different ways, and Henry, in particular, was scathing in his criticism of the miscreants. "You always get people who grizzle on a tour like this, and they tend to come from the ranks of those who aren't in the Test team," he said.

"Did these newspaper comments really matter? Yes, I think they had an importance. I believe that the team comes first, and in my view, those who choose to criticise people within the group are not doing what they should be doing. I have opinions about certain things and certain people, but I don't express them because I know there are bigger things to consider. It is a question of personal judgement in the end, and my judgement is that you don't want to destroy the fabric of your own team.

"Of course players get disappointed or frustrated at not making the Saturday side, but I'd like to think most of them see the bigger picture. The fact that they were selected for the Lions in the first place is an honour and a privilege in itself. Anyway, the vast majority of the players have been marvellous. When I look at people like Keith Wood, Rob Howley, Jonny Wilkinson, Richard Hill, Brian O'Driscoll and Martin Johnson, I see dedicated professional sportsmen, and it has been good to rub shoulders with them."

Not for the first time, Henry insisted that the intense and, to some players, thoroughly unpopular training sessions held in the early part of the tour were entirely necessary. "I have no negative thoughts about that aspect of our planning; in fact, I don't think we could have done anything more, or anything much better," he said. "The work we put in during the first three weeks of the trip needed to be done, end of story. How else were we going to take on and beat the best team in the world in their own country? Spend all day on the beach and play on instinct?"

As the first coach ever to oversee a Lions series defeat in Australia, Henry might have spent yesterday licking his wounds. Perhaps he did, in private. Publicly, he was more upbeat than anyone had a right to expect. "The trip has been a failure, in that we lost the series," he admitted. "But I'm certainly a better coach now than when I left New Zealand, and probably better than when I left Britain last month. It hasn't all been bad, not by a long way."