Rugby Union: A site for sore eyes

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The Independent Online
ONCE AGAIN Twickenham provided a less than adequate setting to an important match when the Barbarians played Australia on Saturday. True, the weather was not so damp or the gloom so intense as both had been for the England and South Africa game. But in an unlit building site the spectators were once again short-changed.

It would have been better to hold the match at Cardiff - which was, after all, the original location for this fixture of the Barbarians against the touring side. Or Wembley could have been taken over again.

And why are the rugby supporters of the North so neglected? Old Trafford is a fine ground, with moreover (a factor not to be disregarded) generous facilities for the press, as I discovered when I was entertained there after a Wigan and St Helens cup tie a couple of seasons ago. As a sign of progress, the North are playing the All Blacks there next season.

Quite apart from whether it was the appropriate ground, was it the appropriate team to represent our interests? Should it not have been the Lions out there?

Over this question, which has been debated in rugby circles for some time now (ever since, I think, the triumphant New Zealand tour of 1971), I believe in compromise. The Barbarians' fixtures against the touring side should be retained because, though a relatively new tradition, it has served rugby well, not merely with the great Cardiff match of 1973.

Saturday's match was among them. It was not a classic, though it might have been if the Australians had not been so exhausted mentally. But it nevertheless contained numerous good things from which there was a lot to be learnt, by national and Lions selectors alike.

The retention of the Barbarians' fixture would mean that the Lions could not meet the touring side in a final match. They could, however, play France every year, as they did on a single occasion under Rob Andrew, some seasons ago. Or they could play national cup or league champions (with the club having first call on players). They could even play the Antipodean countries in single fixtures. The lengthy tour, indeed, should now be a thing of the past. Rugby union has yet to acknowledge many aspects of the modern world, including the invention of the jet engine.

But the Lions' tour of New Zealand will duly take place. Followers of the game are already picking their teams. Mike Rayer has appeared twice in recent weeks as a substitute for Tony Clement and distinguished himself as one of the best backs on his side. Though Stuart Barnes - someone else who should go to New Zealand - made the break which led to Ian Hunter's try, it was Rayer's pass which rendered a try certain.

Not that anyone should take anything away from Hunter. He has done all that could be expected of him this season, and has appeared somehow surer of himself than Tony Underwood, who looks nonetheless certain to go with his brother, Rory. Simon Geoghegan is also a virtual certainty.

I have every sympathy for Scott Gibbs, but once again he was submerged by the Australian defence; while Will Carling's own defence was somewhat suspect. Robert Jones confirmed his return to form, even though he did not have an immaculate match. Jeff Probyn and Ben Clarke were splendid. And Ian Smith looked the likely British Isles successor to Peter Winterbottom, who himself has not appeared for the Lions as often as he should have done.

I end with a plea: for an attempt to restore the Barbarians and Swansea fixture on Easter Monday to its former glory. Anyone who was present at Swansea's match against Australia on 4 November knew that this - the fervour of the occasion - was one rugby tradition which was being maintained.

Cup, league and national commitments of one sort and another have meant in recent years that the Swansea-Barbarians fixture has been one of both sides going through the motions with sadly depleted teams. Paradoxically, the maintenance of one tradition might mean the abandonment of another - that of the Easter tour. If the Saturday Cardiff fixture were taken at the beginning of the season, and the Swansea fixture at the end, everyone would be happier, except perhaps, for some Cardiff supporters and officials.

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