Rugby Union: Hitch for Hunter over New Zealand tour: Lions management kept waiting over the fitness of England wing

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The Independent Online
THE LIONS gathered in Surrey last night for their pre-tour weekend together with nearly half of them already excused training for matches tomorrow and one in particular - Ian Hunter - desperate to prove his fitness when Northampton play London Scottish. Otherwise, he will not be going to New Zealand and either Simon Geoghegan or Tony Stanger will probably take the wing vacancy he would thereby create.

Despite winning three England caps, Hunter has scarcely played for his club this season because of a succession of injuries and if he does not come through unscathed a replacement wing will be summoned to Weybridge, where the British Isles squad are staying, or The Stoop, where they are training.

'If he suffers a reaction to the knee problems, there's no way he can go on the tour,' Geoff Cooke, the Lions manager who has already had to replace Gary Armstrong with Robert Jones, said yesterday. Hunter, a full- back by preference but so far a Test wing, already realised how suspect his position was.

'I know my knee has let me down at times during the season but in the last couple of months I've worked as hard as possible in getting it right,' he said yesterday. Hunter last played a full 80 minutes for England in Cardiff on 6 February, and even then he departed at the very end with an eye injury.

The management have released 14 players for various forms of action tomorrow, in particular from Bath, Llanelli, Swansea, Leicester and Moseley. The 15th is the Scotland prop, Peter Wright, whose Saturday match is his own marriage. Wright's honeymoon will not begin until Monday and will end just in time for the tour.

Four Bath players have been freed to face Saracens in the Courage league decider at Southgate. But Cooke said yesterday that no request had been received for Rob Andrew's release for Wasps' game against Bristol even though, if Wasps won and Bath lost, Wasps would be champions. 'We didn't give a blanket clearance. We dealt with each club individually and we haven't heard from Wasps.'

The Lions management used yesterday's opportunity to reaffirm support for the British Isles, four-country concept which some want to kill off and some expect to see become naturally extinct. In New Zealand, there is a reluctant, but widely held, perception that this will be the last Lions tour there.

Not so, say Cooke, the coach, Ian McGeechan and the captain, Gavin Hastings, whose view is confirmed by the fact that only one player - the Ireland flanker, Pat O'Hara - ended up being unavailable for selection.