Rugby Union: History casts a long shadow

LIONS TOUR '97: For the first trip of the professional era to be a success, the past victories and defeats in South Africa need to be forgotten, says Chris Hewett who, below, profiles Eric Miller - the youngest of the party - and Ieuan Evans - the oldest
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The Independent Online
Martin Johnson will spend the next eight weeks of his life attempting to remove a rogues gallery of hairy-chested Springboks from the general vicinity of his neck, so the last thing he needs is an albatross attaching itself to his shirt collar the moment he touches down in Johannesburg tomorrow. Especially one the size of Fran Cotton.

Johnson is the archetypal nuts and bolts man; there is nothing fancy or overblown about him, nothing grandiose or pretentious. No discernible sense of history, either, for his occasional public utterances have contained few references to the broader issues thrown up by the 11th Lions tour of South Africa to be undertaken since W E Maclagen's party blazed the trail in 1891.

In short, the captain is a model tunnel-visioned professional for whom professionalism means a whole lot more than the pounds 10,000 wedge in his back pocket. In Johnson's definition, the word conjures a simple image of a job of work waiting to be completed with a minimum of fuss and only a modicum of bother. Satisfaction will be achieved by getting out there and doing the business. Other people can do the talking.

Johnson, however, will be looking at history every time he claps eyes on Cotton, his larger than life manager, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Ian McGeechan, his coach. Both served under Willie John McBride when the 1974 Lions publicly relieved the Springboks of their sporting manhood and Cotton, one of the arch-destroyers of a supposedly great Springbok pack, has deliberately created this latest squad in that glorious image.

The tales of bravery and derring-do are trotted out as frequently today as they were on McBride's return home some 23 years ago; indeed, they were common currency this week as the Lions indulged in their male bonding session in Weybridge before flying south today. Willie John, the "99" call, the fights, the battles, the wars, mass retaliation, subjugation and triumph: for many, 1974 revisited would do very nicely thank-you.

On Thursday, when the Lions spoke collectively for the first time about the three-Test series awaiting them, there was much discussion of life among the mud and bullets - of meeting fire with fire, of standing firm in the face of intimidation, of not being pushed around - and precious little of the wit, pace and imagination that will also be required if Gary Teichmann's gifted and highly motivated band of 'Boks are to be tamed. The message was clear: these Lions are serious.

Yet they must very quickly reach the conclusion that history is bunk, for the game has changed beyond recognition since Gordon Brown removed an Orange Free State second-row's glass eye with a right hook. The age of home-town refereeing, bar-room brawling and official under-the-carpet silences has given way to an era of pro-active touch-judges, after-match citings and trial by video. This tour will be hard, perhaps brutally so, but it will also be more open to scrutiny than any that have gone before.

No one need tell Johnson that 1974 will count for nothing when Test day dawns in Cape Town on 21 June, but Cotton needs to reinforce that truth with all the sincerity he can muster. A big, warm, affable character possessed of natural gifts as a communicator, the manager is also an unashamed defender of the values and traditions of the game. If he lives in the present, he breathes deeply of the past. His task over the next two months is to put old glories on the back burner and get modern.

If he succeeds, Cotton can play a significant role in securing a meaningful future for the Lions. While International Board delegates have given their blessing to a four-yearly cycle of tours - plans are already being laid for the visit to New Zealand and Australia in 2001 - a severe hiding from South Africa would undoubtedly undermine the kudos and prestige still contained in every thread of the famous red shirt. To keep the flame burning brightly, this party needs to compete.

Thanks to the runaway success of the World Cup, the Lions are having to get used to sharing the top branch of the rugby tree. The high regard in which they are currently held is derived directly from the weakness of Ireland, Scotland and Wales as individual rugby nation states. For the Springboks, the All Blacks and the Wallabies, genuine Test intensity is in short supply north of the equator - the French sometimes provide it in their own backyard, England only rarely.

A Lions' series victory against the odds would, therefore, work wonders in concentrating the elitist minds of the southern superpowers, but is it even remotely on the cards?

In the view of Joel Stransky, the non-pareil Springbok outside-half inexplicably marginalised by his country's selectors, the Lions may well find the three Tests more to their liking than many of the 10 provincial torments to which they will be subjected. That theory has a ring of truth to it, for it is far easier to imagine a fully-equipped Saturday side grinding out a narrow victory or two than the midweek dirt-trackers prevailing over the might of Transvaal or the furies of the Free State.

Cotton and his fellow selectors will mix and match for the first three games - Eastern Province, Border and Western Province - before deciding on the main men. Those left out in the cold will have to carry the can in some distinctly dangerous territory and there is an obvious risk of history repeating itself. Four years ago in New Zealand, the midweek effort collapsed in embarrassing disarray and the effect on squad morale was ruinous.

It is, of course, perfectly true that the success of this tour will be measured by the Test results alone. Bill Beaumont's 1980 Lions, admirably equipped up front but found wanting outside the scrummage, won all 14 provincial games in South Africa and were good enough to push the Springboks in each of the four internationals, yet they lost the rubber 3-1 and went down in the annals as failures.

But it is that series, rather than the 1974 conflagration, that will set the tone over the next couple of months. The Springboks may have beaten Beaumont but not by much, certainly not by a margin sufficient to exorcise the ghost of McBride. Teichmann's men are not looking for mere victory over the Lions, they are looking to humiliate them. History cuts both ways, after all.

Lions itinerary and squad

24 May: Eastern Province Invitation XV (Port Elizabeth)

28 May: Border (East London)

31 May Western Province (Cape Town)

4 June: S E Transvaal (Witbank)

7 June: Northern Transvaal (Pretoria)

11 June: Transvaal (Johannesburg)

14 June:Natal (Durban)

17 June: Emerging Springboks (Wellington)

21 June: SOUTH AFRICA (First Test, Cape Town)

24 June: Free State (Bloemfontein)

28 June: SOUTH AFRICA (Second Test, Durban)

1 July: Northern Free State (Welkom)

5 July: SOUTH AFRICA (Third Test, Johannesburg)

TOUR PARTY: Backs: N Jenkins, T Stimpson, T Underwood, N Beal, J Bentley, I Evans, A Bateman, S Gibbs, J Guscott, W Greenwood, P Grayson, G Townsend, M Dawson, A Healey, R Howley. Forwards: J Leonard, D Young, G Rowntree, T Smith, P Wallace, M Regan, K Wood, B Williams, S Shaw, M Johnson (capt), J Davidson, D Weir, R Hill, R Wainwright, L Dallaglio, E Miller, T Rodber, S Quinnell, N Back.