Rugby Union: Fight for the history tours

A rugby institution is facing serious danger this week. By Hugh Godwin
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AS A director of a family furniture firm, Jeff Probyn, it may be guessed, knows a thing or two about touching up old relics that have seen better days. But Probyn's call for the disbanding of the Lions touring team, rugby's most famous travelling ambassadors, is like taking an axe to a prized Chesterfield.

The Rugby Football Union's National Playing Committee, on which Probyn serves, has toned down the motion. Instead, a proposal to lengthen the Lions' touring cycle from four to six years will go before the RFU's management board on Thursday and, if accepted as policy, on to the Home Unions.

In the event of the management board taking up the cudgel, and John Jeavons- Fellows, the RFU's man on the International Board, is thought to be a strong supporter, the controversial move is certain to be shot down in flames by the other Unions. Sid Millar, the Irishman who propped in nine Lions' Tests and is now chairman of the Lions committee, is scathing of the suggested review. "I have a high regard for Jeff Probyn but I think he is wrong here," said Millar. "It is not a matter of being anti-change, but this is not a good change.

"We are not in the business of just suiting England. We need the Lions to retain the credibility of rugby in these islands and a six-year cycle is too long. The RFU seem incapable of standing up for the institutions of the game. Their clubs did not enter the European Cup in its first year, they have asked for the Five Nations to be played in May and June to clear the season for the clubs and now this nonsense over the Lions.

"I hope that the players will have a say in this and ensure that their club contracts require release for Lions tours."

The cynic might think that Probyn, a great England prop but never a Lion, is getting one back for his omission from the 1993 New Zealand tour. He insists he is merely fulfilling his remit to advance the development of the England team.

"Every single person present when the National Playing Committee discussed it, which includes Bill Beaumont, Clive Woodward and Don Rutherford, agreed with my arguments," he said. "But none of them are prepared to put their head above the parapet and actually call for the Lions to be disbanded.

"I go back to Jason Leonard, lying on the floor of the England dressing- room after the 1995 World Cup semi-final defeat by New Zealand. He said, 'The only way we're ever going to beat these bastards is to play them more often.' But as things stand England can only tour the southern hemisphere once in a cycle compared to two or three by Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and six by France. That is no way to develop England's players."

Probyn asserts that the commercial appeal of the Lions is great news for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the customary hosts, but does nothing for England. He says England's capacity to arrange reciprocal tours with the southern hemisphere giants is undermined, and points out that the RFU cannot ensure the release of its leading players from the clubs for Lions tours.

The chief dissenting voice on the National Playing Committee, Fran Cotton, was not present at their deliberations. Instead Cotton, a Lion in 1974 and 1977 and the manager of the first professional Lions party who won the Test series in South Africa last year, will be allowed to go before the management board and plead the retention of the present four-year cycle.

There is a precedent for a six year hiatus when, in between touring New Zealand in 1983 and Australia in 1989, apartheid-riven South Africa were bypassed by the Lions in 1986. The Lions survived and prospered to the extent that the 1997 tourists attracted around pounds 1m worth of sponsorship.