Rugby Union: All Blacks pay tribute to their visitors for putting them back in the black: The Lions provide New Zealand with an unexpected windfall which should curb the influence of televised rugby league. Steve Bale reports from Auckland

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THE LIONS have given rugby in New Zealand its biggest shot in the arm for years, Eddie Tonks, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union chairman, said last night as he rubbed his hands in glee at the prospect of a massive financial windfall from the tour.

Tonks is talking in terms of millions of NZ dollars, but more important, at a time when the NZRFU is increasingly anxious about the impact of the blanket television coverage of Australian rugby league, is the huge public interest the tour has generated.

Crowds have generally been larger than expected, and the aggregate attendance has been boosted to 280,000 by the capacity 47,000 who sold out Eden Park for today's third Test after the All Blacks had won in Christchurch and the Lions in Wellington.

'It has exceeded our best hopes in terms of gates, patronage, media support and general interest,' Tonks said. 'Our gates in New Zealand have been down for the last two years but this tour has turned that around and built up the interest in all our rugby right from the grass-roots level. The Lions have done us a great service.'

The income generated for the NZRFU has been badly needed after a period of significant outgoings. Gathering together the world team who played three Tests against the All Blacks last year to commemorate the NZRFU centenary was costly enough but it was then followed by the Ireland's tour of New Zealand, which made a loss of NZdollars 400,000 ( pounds 146,500).

The host union takes 50 per cent of the profit from its games. In the case of the North Harbour union, an accumulated debt of around NZdollars 120,000 ( pounds 44,000) was eradicated at a stroke when its team met the Lions in the second match of the tour.

'We will have a good idea of the overall revenue the tour has generated over the weekend, but it will run into millions of pounds for the benefit of rugby,' Tonks added. 'It has given us the fillip we needed. The long-term effect is to build up interest so that life becomes easier for our unions in terms of attracting sponsorship and negotiating TV rights. Thanks to the Lions, we are more than holding our own with rugby league. It's not going to go away but I don't believe it's now anywhere near the threat that we thought it was a couple of years ago.'

The Lions are next due to visit New Zealand in 2005 (South Africa come in 1997 and Australia in 2001), which gives the lie to the unsubstantiated theory that this would be their last tour. 'I just don't know where this has come from,' Tonks said. As he is chairman of the International Board, his view carries weight. 'I have yet to meet anyone - player, coach, administrator or supporter - who wants to see an end to Lions tours. If I could, I'd have them in New Zealand every four years not every 12.'

Michael Lynagh will play for Australia against Tonga in Brisbane tomorrow a month after having a double hernia operation. However, Lynagh, Australia's stand-off and captain, will not perform goalkicking duties.

Brisbane teams, Sporting

Digest, page 55

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