Lions told to spread the word

TOUR VERDICT: Success secures future for British Isles team as coach pushes for home games. Chris Hewett reports from Johannesburg
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Will Carling and a legion of like-minded Jeremiahs got it badly wrong; far from going the way of all dinosaurs and disappearing from the face of earth, the Lions have reacted to the professional age so positively that they can no longer be counted among the world's endangered sporting species. Their future is secure, cast in concrete foundations a mile deep by a special band of players who resisted the Springboks with their hearts and souls as well as bruised and battered bodies.

What kind of future will be it be, though? Not even the hierarchical elite of European rugby's most romantic institution can agree on the blueprint, the only certainty being the tour of Australia and New Zealand in four years' time. Ian McGeechan, triumphant for the second time as Lions coach and now up there in the tacticians' pantheon alongside Carwyn James, is an unashamed expansionist pushing hard for a break with tradition by establishing home fixtures against incoming southern hemisphere powers. On the other hand, Ray Williams, chairman of the Four Home Unions' tours committee, considers that sort of growth to be so much pie in the sky.

"A total non-starter," said Williams, spiking the afterglow of the 2- 1 series victory over the world champions with what he considered to be a strong measure of stark realism. "Apart from anything else, the timing would be difficult. Lions teams come together and grow over a number of weeks in a tour environment and if they're good enough, they forge themselves into a team of true world-class quality.

"One-off games at home would be something very different, for the Lions would then be no more than a scratch team, rather like the Barbarians. The Baa-Baas concept is fine because to all intents and purposes they are a club side. Sometimes they gell and you get something memorable, sometimes it doesn't work out. But the Lions are more than that because they compete with the best on an equal footing. That can only be done in a tour setting."

McGeechan, however, is convinced of the need for British and Irish players to regularly experience an intensity of rugby over and above the comparatively low-key fare common to the Five Nations' Championship. "We're talking levels here and the only way I can think to establish new levels is to get the Lions playing in Britain and Europe as well as south of the equator," he said yesterday.

Good arguments on both sides, then, with the Williams camp more likely to prevail, if only because of the cluttered and claustrophobic nature of an international fixture list now tottering on the precipice of overkill. On average, a major rugby Test will be played on four weekends out of five for the rest of 1997 - minor Tests involving nations outside the traditional Big Eight take the number up around eight for the calendar year - and with the best will in the world, it is difficult to see precisely how increased Lions activity could be shoehorned into the equation.

Anyway, McGeechan's greater concern is that the 40 players who laid bodies and reputations on the line from the Western cape to the northern Free State over the last seven weeks now commit themselves every bit as completely to spreading the gospel back home. The 1997 Lions may not have stunned the Bokke hordes with the quality of their attacking play in the Tests - "they won the series on their arses," said Rob Andrew, England's most- capped outside-half and himself a double Lion, following the emotional victory in Durban 10 days ago - but leaving aside one chaotic swamp-wallowing pantomime against Border in East London, they produced some wonderful stuff in the provinces.

"British and Irish rugby cannot afford it to end here, for that would be a criminal waste," McGeechan said. "The tour is finished, gone, and there is always a sadness when the magic of the Lions, the unique drawing together of players from four countries, fades away with the last game. What makes it live on is when players return to their clubs and international set-ups and reproduce and enhance what was achieved in eight short weeks on foreign fields.

"Knowing these players as I do now, I don't think they will readily move away or retreat from the view of what is possible in the game that we have established here. I would be very disappointed if they let go of their ambition and we saw a Five Nations' Championship next year that was wholly unaffected by the Lions' achievement."

Jim Telfer, McGeechan's enormously effective right-hand man on the coaching staff, echoed those sentiments with a word of caution. "Players are conservative by nature," he said. "They go back into the comfort zone whenever the opportunity arises; very often, they won't bother to run the extra 30 or 40 metres or score the extra 30 or 40 points when they're winning the game doing what they're doing. That's why our coaches have every bit as much responsibility as the players to make sure these standards, new standards for British rugby, are maintained."

There, then, is the challenge. A challenge to the national coaches - Jack Rowell, Kevin Bowring, Richie Dixon and Brian Ashton - as they contemplate next season's international programme. Rowell, in particular, should take the lessons of the Lions on board for he saw his front five forwards, the pride and joy of England's Triple Crown campaign last season, blown out of the water by a collection of unheralded Celts.

Ireland now have 50 per cent of a pack upon which to build while the Scots can look to Tom Smith, Doddie Weir, Rob Wainwright and, in particular, Gregor Townsend to generate some Murrayfield momentum. But it is the Welsh who can look to the brightest future of all, possessing as they do a Lions spine of Neil Jenkins, Rob Howley, Barry Williams and Scott Quinnell and a top-notch midfield pairing of Allan Bateman and Scott Gibbs. If the genius of Arwel Thomas continues to blossom and Gwyn Jones slips as easily into a McGeechan-style equation as easily as his rich gifts suggest he should, the Red Dragon will be on the threshold of a new golden age.

And McGeechan? For heaven's sake, get the man involved at international level, somewhere, anywhere. British and Irish rugby may be on a high following this remarkable South African sojourn, but it would be fooling itself if it felt strong enough to keep a world-class coach locked and chained to his office desk at Northampton. As McGeechan himself said on an entirely different subject: "It would be a criminal waste."

Following last Saturday's 30-13 defeat by New Zealand, Australia have dropped prop Richard Harry and centre Daniel Herbert for Saturday's Test against England. Herbert makes way for the return of Jason Little, who missed the Bledisloe Cup defeat with a hip injury.

AUSTRALIAN SQUAD (v England, Sydney, Saturday): Backs: M Burke, E Flatley, G Gregan, M Hardy, T Horan, J Holbeck, S Larkham, J Little, S Payne, J Roff, B Tune. Forwards: A Blades, C Blades, M Brial, M Caputo, M Cockbain, T Coker, J Eales (capt), M Foley, D Manu, E McKenzie, G Morgan, B Robinson, D Wilson.

Ten players who rose to new heights on the South Africa tour

Neil Jenkins

No one's idea of a world-class full-back, least of all his own, but with immense application and a liberal measure of pure courage he became a gamble worth taking for the Lions selectors. Quite where the tourists would have been without his well-nigh flawless kicking is anyone's guess, but it is safe to assume they would not be celebrating a famous series victory.

John Bentley

Forget the try he handed Andre Joubert on a plate in the Durban Test; Bentley was never likely to emerge from the series as a great defensive wing. The contribution he made to the party, both as a bold and daring runner on the pitch and as a hugely entertaining and colourful character off it, far outweighed the odd missed tackle or perilous suicide run. One of a close-knit party's central figures.

Jeremy Guscott

The legend grows and deepens. Superficially speaking, Guscott's series- clinching drop goal at King's Park was an all-too-rare example of his instinctive genius for the game, but the man's mere presence on the rugby fields of South Africa was more than enough to give the opposition a severe dose of the heebie-geebies. In addition, he again proved himself without peer as a drift defender at the top level.

Scott Gibbs

Outstanding. The Boks must be wishing the disciplinary panel in Pretoria had suspended Gibbs for rather more than one game following his punching excesses against Northern Transvaal. A ban for the remainder of the tour would have been about right from South Africa's point of view, for when it came to the Tests the Swansea centre established himself as a dominant force. Poor Os du Randt still has the bruises, if anyone needs confirmation.

Allan Bateman

A marginal winner of the award for the unluckiest tourist, just sneaking ahead of Eric Miller and Barry Williams on countback. Bateman was probably - no, certainly - the most complete midfield performer among the Lions but missed out on all but the second half of the final Test through injury problems and the more particular gifts possessed by Gibbs and Guscott. Made the cleanest break of the series when he did get on at Ellis Park.

Gregor Townsend

Much maligned by some, but the Lions missed his wit and ingenuity when the Boks began to roar in Johannesburg. He was never likely to prove himself the most complete outside-half in the world, but his heavily stylised approach, allied to unusually rich reserves of raw guts, made him a Test certainty. His heart-in-the-mouth raids on the Springbok 22 in the decisive closing minutes of the Durban epic were priceless.

Tom Smith

Not so much the quiet man of the tour as the Trappist of the tour; by all accounts, he says less on the pitch than off it, which is quite an achievement. But the prop from nowhere can undoubtedly play and he deserved his full hand of Test selections over the more obvious claims of Graham Rowntree and Jason Leonard. Big tackle counts and safe hands are part and parcel of the modern prop's game and Smith is very definitely a mod.

Jeremy Davidson

A stunning realisation of a rich, rich talent. England's Simon Shaw travelled to South Africa as a stone-cold Test certainty, only to find his Irish rival soaring higher in the line-outs, scrummaging his socks off at every set-piece and galloping faster around the pitch than anyone could possibly have predicted. He went face to face with Mark Andrews, the king-pin lock from Natal, worked his way under his skin and cleaned him out. Absolutely brilliant.

Keith Wood

Utterly irrepressible, a force-of-nature hooker with a zest for rugby at its meanest and toughest. With a titan like Os du Randt in the opposing front row, the Lions needed foot-soldiers in the trenches who would stand up to be counted.

Wood was always the first on his feet, staring the Boks square in the eyeballs, inviting them to do their worst and promising retaliation in spades. Shrewd kicking game, too.

Lawrence Dallaglio

The most influential forward in the pride - and that includes Martin Johnson, the captain. Dallaglio's extraordinary appetite for the fray marked him out as the Lions' most implacable warrior, but he also brought judgement and intelligence to his role. After two storming Tests on the blind-side flank, he pulled on the No 8 shirt in Johannesburg and performed even better. If England have any sense, they will build their side around him.

THE 1997 LIONS: A STATISTICAL APPRECIATION

TOUR RESULTS (British Isles scores first): 24 May: Eastern Province Invitation XV, Port Elizabeth: Won 39-11; 28 May: Border, East London: Won 18-14; 31 May: Western Province, Cape Town: Won 38-21; 4 June: Mpumalanga, Witbank: Won 64-14; 7 June: Northern Transvaal, Pretoria: Lost 30-35; 11 June: Transvaal, Johannesburg: Won 20-14; 14 June: Natal, Durban: Won 42-12; 17 June: Emerging Springboks, Wellington: Won 51-22; 21 June: First Test SOUTH AFRICA, Cape Town: Won 25-16; 24 June: Orange Free State, Bloemfontein: Won 52-30; 28 June: Second Test SOUTH AFRICA, Durban: Won 18-15; 2 July: Northern Free State, Welkom: Won 67-39; 5 July: Third Test SOUTH AFRICA, Johannesburg: Lost 16-35.

P W D L F A

Tests 3 2 0 1 59 66

(Total v S Africa 43 16 6 21)

Other 10 9 0 1 421 205

Total 13 11 0 2 480 278

SCORERS

In Tests: N Jenkins 41 pts (1 con, 13 pens) (beats Gavin Hastings record of 38); M Dawson 2 tries; A Tait 1 try; J Guscott 1 drop goal.

Leading scorers on tour

T C P Dg Total

T Stimpson - 23 15 - 111

N Jenkins 2 17 22 - 110

T Underwood 7 - - - 35

J Bentley 7 - - - 35

J Guscott 4 - - 1 23

N Beal 4 - - - 20

R Wainwright 4 - - - 20

M Dawson 3 - - - 15

I Evans 3 - - - 15

M Regan 2 - - - 10

S Shaw 2 - - - 10

A Tait 2 - - - 10

The following scored one try each: N Back, A Bateman, K Bracken, L Dallaglio, W Greenwood, A Healey, G Rowntree, D Weir (total 8).

Total tries scored: 56; Conversions: 40; Penalties: 38; Drop goals: 2.

Casualties of tour: Paul Grayson (thigh strain); Doddie Weir (knee, after being stamped on); Scott Quinnell (groin injury); Robert Howley (dislocated shoulder); Will Greenwood (concussed and dislocated shoulder after spear tackle); I Evans (groin injury, aggravated in training); Keith Wood (groin); Alan Tait (groin); Jason Leonard (torn thigh muscle); Kyran Bracken (collar bone injury); Eric Miller (thigh muscle); Jeremy Guscott (broken bone in left arm); Tony Underwood (torn thigh muscle).

Naughty boy: Scott Gibbs - banned for one match after being found guilty of throwing a punch at Grant Esterhuizen during match v Northern Transvaal.

APPEARANCES

Total Tests

(apps as replacement in brackets)

N Jenkins 8 (2) 3

T Stimpson 7 (1) (1)

T Underwood 8 (1) 1

N Beal 5 -

J Bentley 8 2

I Evans 5 1

A Bateman 7 (1 (1)

S Gibbs 6 (1) 3

J Guscott 7 3

A Tait 6 (1) 2

W Greenwood 6 (1) -

P Grayson 1 -

G Townsend 6 2

M Dawson 6 (2) 3

R Howley 4 -

A Healey 7 (2 (1)

J Leonard 7 (2) (1)

D Young 6 (2) -

G Rowntree 6 (1) -

T Smith 7 3

P Wallace 6 (1) 3

M Regan 6 (1) 1

K Wood 5 2

B Williams 4 (1) -

S Shaw 7 (1) -

M Johnson 6 3

J Davidson 8 (1) 3

D Weir 3 -

R Hill 5 1

R Wainwright 7 1

L Dallaglio 7 3

E Miller 5 (1) (1)

T Rodber 5 2

S Quinnell 3 (1) -

N Back 8 (1) 2 (1)

Playing record of replacements flown in:

T Stanger 1 -

M Catt 6 (1) 1

K Bracken 1 -

N Redman 4 -

T Diprose 2 -

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