Rugby Union: Beware too much pride in the Lions

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The Independent Online
IT'S RARE for a bit of good news to hit rugby these days, so the Rugby Football Union's rejection of a bid to castrate the Lions was very welcome. The Lions have brought so much pride to our rugby in the past, and may be our only hope of happiness in the future, that it would have been stupid to threaten their existence.

But that's what would have happened had the RFU accepted a proposal to stretch the gap between Lions' tours from four years to six. Effectively, that would have taken the steam out of the traditional visits the Lions have been making to the strongholds of southern hemisphere rugby for over 100 years. Interest would be bound to suffer from the extra wait and British players would be robbed of an honour that has been the pinnacle of a career. Some careers don't even last six years at the top grade.

The thinking behind the move, which was led by former prop Jeff Probyn, was that the Lions stifled the development of the English team. Having to feed the Lions meant that England couldn't mount their own tour that year, thereby losing valuable time in perfecting their own side and, of course, losing income as well.

It is sad that the main result of professionalism has been a sharp rise in selfishness and I'm delighted the RFU threw out the suggestion. There is, however, one slight danger in possessing such a fine rugby force as the Lions in these cash-dominated days. If the British countries do not fare well in next year's World Cup, it would not be a massive surprise if they were asked to join forces under the Lions banner for the next one in 2003.

It may be a sacrilege even to suggest such a horror but there is nothing sacred in this game any more and the presence of the Lions, alongside New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in a World Cup would be commercial temptation some would find difficult to resist.

That's why it is essential that the home nations give a good account of themselves next year. England, of course, are in the best position to do well, although I can't see them winning it, but inspirational performances from the others are also called for.

Welsh hopes rest on how good a resuscitation job the new coach, Graham Henry, can do. I spoke last week about his attempts to strengthen the Welsh squad. Since then he has made more impressive progress. He has conducted coaching sessions at the rebel clubs, Cardiff and Swansea, and already he has created better relations with club coaches than anyone in the past.

And he has managed to do this against the background of a civil war as bitter as any rugby country has ever experienced. It has been like watching a man stroll through the middle of a battlefield, pretending not to notice the bullets whistling past his ear-hole. Lesser men might have fled from what looks an impossible situation, but he has remained calm and friendly with both sides and seems determined that their fight is not going to deflect him from doing his job.

Sometimes, he looks to be the only level-headed person on the scene as he keeps his focus firmly on rugby, and Wales are fortunate to have someone with such intensity of purpose. If ever there was a time when a large portion of New Zealand hard-headedness should come in useful this is it. Some of it could well rub off on our neighbours, too.

First of all, Henry must win the battle at WRU committee level to bring in the structural changes he wants to the domestic system. He might need a megaphone to make them listen but I hope they support him. It hasn't taken him long to spot that there are too many professional players in rugby union in this country. Or, to be more accurate, that there are too many players getting paid. He is amazed that while there are only 350 professional players in New Zealand, there are thousands getting paid here without the game benefiting.

It is a view I have expressed before. I'm positive it is stifling ambition in the lower leagues. They pocket a few quid for playing for their local clubs at a comfortable level and have little incentive to try to move up.

From what I gather, Henry favours a structure with a handful of top clubs playing in a British league, supported by a semi-professional league of 16 who will feed their best players upwards. Below that would be a controlled amateur league system down to the grass roots and the schools. In other words, if you want to earn money from rugby, you've got to get yourself a place at the top.

He feels that we have good enough players but we must expose them to Super 12 strength rugby at club level in order for them to develop into crack international players. I'm very encouraged by his plans. His problem will be to get the support he needs to put it into operation. Many before him have tried but he gives the distinct impression that he won't be easy to resist.