Evans surprised by his late Lions 'withdrawal'

Rugby Union

Fran Cotton and the rest of the 1997 Lions management team sat down with the men in grey suits at the East India Club yesterday to discuss their squad for this summer's tour of South Africa, but thanks to the disinformation concerning the make-up of the party, they might have done better to hold the meeting in John Le Carre's front room.

The Lions' ratification session with the great and good of the Four Home Unions committee was overshadowed by the emergence of an apparent shock horror story in Wales. Ieuan Evans, already a double Lion, was confidently reported to have opted out of the trip - a move that would have denied the selectors an obvious candidate for the captaincy as well as leaving the wing positions even more exposed.

All this was news to Evans. Regardless of the captaincy issue - Martin Johnson, the Leicester and England lock, was hot favourite for the job yesterday despite a glaring lack of leadership experience - Evans pronounced himself fit and eager for one of the biggest challenges of his, or anyone's, career.

Far from losing key members of their party, the Lions were hopeful of adding to it by appointing Dave Alred to the coaching team. Renowned in every corner of the rugby-playing world as the best kicking technician in the business, the former Minnesota Viking from Bristol would be worth his weight in gold to a party seriously deficient in the crucial area of marksmanship.

England chose to ignore his expertise for most of the recent Five Nations campaign and he was called in only on the eve of the final game in Wales. That was still enough time to inspire a world-class kicking performance from Mike Catt.

That policy cut little ice with Cotton and company, however, and the indications are that Alred could expect to be on the team plane when it leaves for Johannesburg on 17 May.

Other indications suggested the Lions would travel with a nap hand of former rugby league professionals. Four Welshmen who returned at the start of last season - Allan Bateman, Scott Gibbs, David Young and Scott Quinnell - were racing certainties for a place in the party and there was a strong bandwagon for Alan Tait, the Scottish centre, and John Bentley, the Newcastle winger, considered surplus to requirements by England.

There was, though, a degree of concern over another wing contender, Simon Geoghegan of Bath. The Irishman pulled out of his club's important Courage League match at Sale tonight, claiming he was "not ready" for such a tough assignment so soon after recovering from surgery on both big toes - a message that was greeted with some discomfort by the champions, who had to recall England's Jon Sleightholme, a regular fall-guy this season, less than 24 hours after dropping him for Geoghegan.

Selection issues were on the agenda at Leicester, too, in advance of tonight's top-of-the-table confrontation with Wasps at Welford Road - a match prematurely billed as the championship decider. John Wells, the flanker, and Stuart Potter, the centre, will be missing with rib and shoulder injuries respectively and that should mean recalls for Dean Richards and Leon Lloyd. The Tigers have made a third change of their own accord, dropping John Liley and pulling his brother Rob into the squad as a potential replacement.

In Wales, Llanelli were drawn against Cardiff in the semi-final of the Swalec Cup - a fixture guaranteed to sell out Swansea's St Helen's ground. In the other tie, Swansea face Ebbw Vale at the Arms Park. The matches will be played on 12 and 13 April.

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