McGeechan seeks free-thinkers

Rugby Union
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The Independent Online
Tours of South Africa tend to be fiery affairs - battle-scarred players with bruised knuckles and split eyelids talk euphemistically about the "physical" nature of Springbok rugby - so it is entirely appropriate that this summer's Lions party should be sponsored by a life assurance company. Scottish Provident have recognised that professionalism is here to stay by pumping pounds 750,000 into the three-Test, 13-match campaign.

With the South Africans also putting their hands in their pockets, it will be the most nakedly commercial tour in the 109-year history of the Lions; indeed, Ray Williams, chairman of the Four Home Unions Tours Committee, expects the cost of the trip to top pounds 1m, with some pounds 400,000 going to the 35-strong squad, who will be paid on a flat-rate basis irrespective of Test appearances or long injury lay-offs.

Still, the players will earn their money; Ian McGeechan, the Northampton strategist who will be coaching a Lions party for the third successive tour, believes the current South African side to be stronger than the 1995 World Cup-winning side. "I'm treating the programme as though we're playing six Five Nations matches, four Super-12 games and three World Cup finals," he said yesterday.

"I have some idea of the type of player I want to take and it could well be that we have to look outside the current Five Nations selections. There is a way to play South Africa and we need free-thinkers who will be positive and not stay in their shells. We also need men with a hard mental edge because the pressure they will face will be greater than any other pressure they ever experience."

Even though Rob Wainwright, the Scottish captain and early favourite to skipper the Lions, was present at yesterday's sponsorship announcement at the South African High Commission in Trafalgar Square, Fran Cotton, the tour manager, was adamant his selection panel was not even close to making up its mind on the leadership issue. He did reveal an initial squad of 60 would be announced next month, from which most, if not all, the tourists would be drawn.

"We'll meet on 9 February to put some certainties down on paper," the former Lions prop said. "It's good to see Rob back fit and playing for Scotland because he's one player with experience as an international captain. But our choice of leader may possibly be someone who is not captain of his country; the chief criteria are that he can guarantee his Test place and command the respect of the squad."

Cotton said the selectors would take "three or four" proven international goalkickers to Johannesburg in May. Given that Neil Jenkins, the Welsh outside-half turned full-back, is one of the very British players who fall into that category, it will be a surprise if he is left back home in Pontypridd. And he was in Trafalgar Square yesterday, too.

n Rory Underwood has shaken off the challenge of teenage wing Leon Lloyd and secured a place in Leicester's European Cup final side against Brive on Saturday.