Rugby Union: Australia win right to host 2001 Lions tour

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TRULY, THIS is the age of the Wallaby. Australia, a very smart bet to win their second world title this autumn, can boast the Cook Cup, the Bledisloe Cup, the best player on the planet in John Eales and, uniquely, six-figure rugby audiences in both Melbourne and Sydney, where 100,000 tickets have already been sold for the Centenary Test against England on 26 June. And by way of exploding the myth that no-one gets everything they want, they now have the Lions, too, much to the disgust of their nearest and dearest in New Zealand.

John O'Neill, the chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union, announced yesterday that he and his colleagues had won the right to host the British Isles tour party in 2001. "The Lions represent the finest in rugby tradition," he gushed, his tone entirely different to the one he adopted 10 months ago in lambasting Clive Woodward's weakened side following their 76-0 surrender in Brisbane. "They were victorious in South Africa in 1997 and should prove an awesome draw when they get here in two years' time."

O'Neill has jumped the gun on this issue before - he made similarly confident noises last year, only to receive an ear-bashing from the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, which insisted that the 2001 tour would be split between the two countries - but International Board delegates are now thought to have rejected deeply unpopular plans to sanction an itinerary giving the Wallabies and the All Blacks two Tests apiece. Confirmation is expected later this week, when the IRB releases an up-dated tour schedule.

Neither the All Blacks nor the Springboks will be particularly pleased; instead of waiting eight years for a Lions visit, they will now have to wait 12. Given the pulling power of the most celebrated touring side in world rugby, treasurers from Dunedin to Durban will be counting the cost of Australia's rise to prominence over the last decade and a half.

There will be considerable debate over the length of the proposed tour: the Lions played 13 matches in Springbok country two years ago but, notwithstanding the startling rise of Australia Capital Territory as a competitive Super- 12 outfit, the Wallabies would struggle to field more than 10 sides capable of giving the combined might of Britain and Ireland a meaningful work- out. When the Lions last visited Australia in 1989 - Finlay Calder's team won the Test series 2-1 - their 12-date programme included fixtures with New South Wales, New South Wales B and New South Wales Country. Every rugby player in the state, good and bad, seemed to have a crack at the visitors and many had two bites at the red-shirted cherry.

The likelihood this time is that outside the three Tests and heavy-duty matches against the three elite Super-12 sides - Queensland Reds, New South Wales Waratahs and ACT Brumbies - the Lions will play a "missionary" fixture against Western Australia in Perth, two up-country select XVs and, possibly, a midweek game against either Australia A or an Australian Barbarians side.

Namibia's participation in the forthcoming World Cup was threatened yesterday when the country's sports commission banned the national team from all competitive activity pending an investigation into alleged racism. Karel Persendt, the president of the commission, accused the white-dominated Namibian Rugby Union of ignoring an agreement designed to increase black representation in the domestic league.

Andries Wahl, the NRU chairman, said he was "absolutely baffled" by the commission's decision. A similar situation developed in South Africa last year and was resolved only when Louis Luyt, the dictatorial union chief from Johannesburg, stepped down.