Cotton trades up

Paul Trow says the new Lions manager will face big battles off the field
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The Independent Online
Steve Smith was a man filled with envy. "It looks as though we'll have to hold a board meeting in Cape Town or Durban unless he picks me in his coaching team," he quipped.

The former England scrum-half had just learned that his business partner would be taking a six-week sabbatical in South Africa next summer and was mulling the implications for their clothing firm, Cotton Traders.

The fact that Fran Cotton will probably also need a decent holiday at the end of his stint as manager of the 1997 British Lions tour - the first since professionalism - was also not lost on Smith, his former comrade- in-arms with Sale, the North, England and the Lions.

But notwithstanding Smith's good-humoured concern, the news of Cotton's appointment has been greeted with widespread relief in British rugby - at last a decision has been made about which there can be no argument.

The 48-year-old former prop, who won 31 England caps and went on three Lions tours, two of them to South Africa, is without question one of the game's few universally respected figures. He was a member of England's Grand Slam team of 1980 and has long been regarded as a rugby icon in the North.

Since being forced into retirement through injury during the 1981 season, he has developed his company and has also been climbing the committee ladder within the RFU.

It was in this capacity that he demonstrated his credentials as a tough negotiator by lining up for the RFU in their recent, ultimately successful, discussions with the senior clubs on how the game should be structured and run from next season.

But after pipping his former England captain Bill Beaumont and Scotland's Duncan Patterson to the job, Cotton realises that managing the Lions could pitch him into potentially an even more volatile contest.

Now that the game has gone open and the leading players will, in effect, be the paid employees of their clubs, his biggest battles may not so much be at Ellis Park or Newlands as in the committee bar at the Recreation Ground or Welford Road.

"One of my concerns is that playing 47 competitive fixtures in a season is no way to prepare for a 13-match Lions tour, including three internationals," Cotton said. "I hope that some of the unions, clubs and players I discussed this with will show some common sense commensurate with winning the Test series. That is our clear objective, especially as the Lions have only won once in South Africa (1974) and the All Blacks have never won a series there at all.

"I'm sure getting the clubs to do what we want is going to be an issue, but I know the players regard selection for the Lions as the highest honour they can receive and they will want to perform at their best on tour. The last thing we want on 16 May is to climb on the plane with the party looking like the retreat from Dunkirk and everybody held together with sticking plaster."

Unlike many commentators, Cotton, who hopes to finalise his coaching team next month, took heart from last season. "A lot of exciting new players have emerged in crucial positions and some countries, with the exception of England, are tactically moving towards the standards set in the Southern Hemisphere.

"I'll be looking for all 30 players in the party to receive the same remuneration regardless of whether they are in the first choice side or not, because they will all be equally important to the success of the tour. But it will be vital that the captain commands the total respect of his colleagues and that he is an automatic choice."

With that Test team in mind, fears that the threat to England's participation in the Five Nations would lead to their players not being selected were dismissed by Ray Williams, the chairman of the Four Home Unions Tour Committee.

Aware, no doubt, that he and his committee have just bestowed one of rugby's highest honours on an Englishman, Williams's comment was unequivocal. "Without England, there won't be a Lions tour."