Beaumont the Lionheart

Chris Hewett talks to a folk hero intent on maintaining a British tradition
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The Independent Online
The white smoke billowing above the Park Lane Hilton, in London, 10 days ago may have signalled a victory of sorts for England's ambitious senior clubs in their grim battle with the Rugby Football Union, but the grand old game has not sold itself entirely to millionaire tax exiles, television magnates and bottom-line accountants. If Bill Beaumont has his way, one glorious tradition will continue to flower in the soul- less desert of professionalism.

When the folk-hero lock- forward led the 1980 British Lions to South Africa - the last Englishman to achieve the ultimate captaincy honour - he went mightily close to realising his sole objective: beating the Springboks on their own soil. Sixteen years on, he is pushing for a return trip in the knowledge that this time the real battle will take place off the field rather than on it.

Along with his great Lancashire and England contemporary Fran Cotton, Beaumont is a leading candidate to manage the 1997 Lions party scheduled to play three Tests against the reigning world champions next summer.

If he gets the nod - the Four Home Unions Tours committee is expected to announce a decision before the end of the month - he intends to use his position to secure a future for the most celebrated of cross-border touring teams in sport.

"Yes, I've been interviewed for the post," confirmed Beaumont, who first became a Lion on the 1977 trip to New Zealand. "It would mean a great deal to me, for many of my fondest rugby memories were forged on my two Lions tours. If I did not feel passionately committed to keeping the tradition alive, I would not have allowed my name to go forward.

"Now that we are in a professional situation, players selected for next year's trip will obviously be paid for their services. But I'm convinced that when we get to 3 o'clock on Test day at Ellis Park or Newlands, payment will be the last thing on anyone's mind. It's a case of playing with, and testing yourself against, the best that rugby has to offer. Nothing else matters," Beaumont said.

Obituaries of the Lions have been written with increasing frequency in the 12 months since the southern hemisphere power brokers ripped up the rule book in favour of pay for play, and Will Carling, Beaumont's successor as a Grand Slam-winning England captain, is hardly alone in considering the whole British Lions idea to be an anachronistic irrelevance. It is a view that riles the would-be manager.

"I would be extremely disappointed if anyone - and I mean anyone - declined the opportunity to take part next summer," he said. "The Lions will continue because the vast majority of leading British players regard a tour place as a pinnacle, something to aspire to. The Barbarians will live on for the same simple reason that players want to be a part of something special.

"When I led the Lions to South Africa, half the country was in isolation and the rugby supporters were falling over themselves to see us," Beaumont said.

"The boycott is no longer in force, but the South Africans are by all accounts every bit as excited at the prospect of another tour. Where does that leave the people who say the Lions no longer mean anything?"