Big game turns British Lions into endangered species

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The Independent Online

Rugby Union Correspondent

A cherished institution, the British Lions, is likely to be one of the first casualties of rugby union's new professional era.

Its death knell was sounded yesterday by Will Carling, the England captain, commenting on the decision of the International Board, rugby union's world governing body, earlier this week to permit full professionalism in a previously amateur sport.

Carling said: "I can't see how there can be Lions tours unless there is a handsome package involved in it and you would have to raise an awful lot of money to make it lucrative to be on tour for two months. In any case, even if they did continue, I wouldn't be available. There's no way I would want to be away for eight weeks."

Composite teams from the British Isles, nicknamed the Lions since the Thirties, have toured South Africa, New Zealand and Australia since 1888. Until the advent of the Rugby World Cup in 1987 they were regarded as the pinnacle of a player's career. Carling added: "The World Cup has become the highlight of the four-year cycle, whereas before it was the Lions tour every four years."

The sport's traditionalists would see an end to Lions tours as bearing out their worst fears about the move to professionalism. Carling anticipates England, rather than the Lions, becoming the priority for English players. This would be in the form of short tours amounting to a couple of weeks. A one-Test visit to New Zealand in May is being investigated.

Carling's attitude is not necessarily shared by others who recall that the New Zealand Rugby Union made millions out of the Lions 1993 tour. Carling withdrew from the 1989 Lions tour of Australia because of a shin injury and in the 1993 tour he lost his place against New Zealand after the first of three Tests.