Rugby Union: Ieuan the Lion plays for pride

Paul Trow talks to the wing who is ready for the big tests in South Africa
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONCE A Lion, always a Lion. At 33, most sportsmen nearing the end of an illustrious career would be contemplating a quiet summer at home, developing a promising career in corporate finance and enjoying the company of a new-born baby girl. But when Britain's bravest and best fly off next weekend for two months of serious physical stress in South Africa, Ieuan Evans will be the first on to the plane.

Once he confirmed his availability, there was never any doubt the Llanelli wing would be selected for his third Lions tour in eight years. But the former Wales captain, his country's most capped player with 71 international appearances and most prolific try-scorer with 33, initially had to think long and hard before taking the plunge.

"Originally, I was undecided about touring, but I had to make my mind up in February when the management announced their provisional squad. Until then, I didn't know whether I wanted to go another eight weeks on tour at my age.

"My fiancee, Kathryn, was due to have the baby just before the England game, which I missed because of calf and hamstring injuries to my left leg. In the end, I decided that turning down a Lions tour was something I would regret in later life. Lawrence Dallaglio's girlfriend has just had a baby, so I won't be the only new father on tour. Anyway, we're expecting to have at least a week with our families out there at some stage."

His decision to undertake the trip also means that Evans, who has suffered almost as many injuries as he has won caps, has no plans to retire. Even though he acknowledges that time is not exactly on his side, he is ill- at-ease whenever he finds himself on the sidelines. "If I'm unable to play, then I hate watching rugby. I gave away my ticket for the England game and watched it on TV at home. I didn't feel comfortable about going but not being part of the team.

"Quite a few of our first-choice players were missing because of injuries, and we got hammered. It demonstrated that we don't have depth in numbers; we can't lose half a dozen guys and retain our quality."

No slight to his beloved Wales was intended in Evans' almost dispassionate assessment of where things went wrong during this season's Five Nations. He is, however, forthright in his belief in the Lions, traditionally a disparate band which congregates every four years with the express purpose of puncturing Southern Hemisphere prejudices against the British game.

"I probably play my best rugby on Lions tours," said Evans, who has appeared in six Tests - three against Australia in 1989 and three more in New Zealand four years later.

"It's definitely a higher calibre. Playing with the cream of British rugby has got to bring out the best in you; you find an extra gear. It's certainly going to be a challenge and I see it very much as an opportunity for Northern Hemisphere rugby to prove itself."

With that in mind, does he feel that Lions tours should take place more frequently than once every four years?

"I don't think there is going to be much room to make the Lions a more regular event. Four years is the optimum. For us, it's like the Olympics. We have the World Cup every four years, and obviously that's the big one as far as Wales is concerned. But a Lions tour is the pinnacle of our careers. They don't come along very often, and if they happened more regularly they would lose their mystique."

This will be Evans' fourth visit to South Africa having played there in the 1995 World Cup, in a one-off Test for Wales a year earlier, and with a Crawshay's invitational squad. And he is under no illusion as to the toughness of his latest assignment. "It's going to be very difficult because, apart from the Tests, we will be playing Super 12 teams and our midweek opponents will be provinces which want to prove that they should be in the Super 12 as well." While remaining optimistic about the Lions' prospects, Evans does not contradict fears that our top players have been given too harsh an examination over the last year.

"Next season starts on 16 August, so we won't have much time to re-charge our batteries. Rugby has become a 12-month sport, but there's got to be a break some time. The physical demands have never been greater and being knocked over by people of 20 stone or more eventually catches up with you."

For the time being, though, Evans has even more pressing concerns - such as improving his record of just one Lions try, the 1989 series clincher courtesy of a howler by David Campese.

"It didn't seem quite so crucial at the time as there was still a long way to go in the match, but it sure was in the end. What a memory!"

Four victims of the Evans effect

Scotland: Wales went into the 1988 Five Nations game on a high after beating England at Twickenham but within seconds were 4-0 down in Cardiff. Jonathan Davies hit back with a try before Evans ran in one of the finest scores ever seen at the ground. From a scrum just inside the Scotland half, the ball eventually made its way to Evans who ran out of space on the wing. Rather than kick ahead, Evans cut inside and with a series of sidesteps and jinks beat the entire Scotland back division on his way under the posts. Davies called the try "an act of sheer genius" and "one of the finest runs I have ever seen". Wales won 25-20 on the way to the Triple Crown.

David Campese: When Finlay Calder led the 1989 Lions to Australia one of the main headaches was how to cope with the man from Randwick. Evans contained Campese in the first two Tests, but it was in the decider in Sydney that Evans really excelled. Early in the second half Campese set off on one his trademark runs from behind his own line and threw a risky pass to Greig Martin. Evans' famed reflexes enabled him to take the interception to score the try that in effect won the Lions the series and led to Campese being ridiculed in his own country.

Rory Underwood: England arrived at Cardiff Arms Park in 1993 on course for their third successive Grand Slam after defeating the French at Twickenham. Will Carling's team coasted into a 9-3 lead in the first half and it seemed Wales, captained by Evans, were facing another humiliating loss. A minute before half-time the Welsh flanker Emyr Lewis booted a despairing kick deep into English territory. Underwood looked to have the ball covered but the crowd roared as Evans tore off in pursuit. Underwood hesitated, allowing Evans to be first to the ball and he beat the stunned English wing in a sprint to touch down his kick. Wales bravely hung on for a 10- 9 win.

Jonah Lomu: 14,000 fans flocked to Stradey Park in 1995 to pay homage to the most productive international try-scorer in Welsh history - and to see Lomu, the sensation of the summer's World Cup. The main attraction of Evans' benefit match was the battle between two wings with contrasting styles. Evans did the unthinkable and ran in two tries in three minutes past the All Black who was six stones heavier. When Lomu was implored before the game to go easy on Evans he replied: "Tell him to go easy on me." In the event Evans came out on top as his team won 68-57.