Rugby Union: Lions leave under the threat of extinction: As the British team fly to New Zealand today, other international demands cloud their future. Steve Bale reports

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The Independent Online
FOUR years on from the last one and we are saying precisely the same: the Lions are threatened with extinction and unless good men do something it may come to pass quicker even than a Robert Jones pass from the base of a steady scrum.

If it did, it would emphatically be the worst thing to have happened to rugby in these islands in the 98 years since the schism that created rugby league. Yet here we are with Gavin Hastings's British Isles party, a thoroughly civilising concoction from the four home unions, leaving for New Zealand tonight and we are in danger of talking them out of existence.

I plead guilty to this but only because of the concern many of us who follow the game feel at the insidious view that Lions rugby is in some way anachronistic, that in these days of World Cups and 12-month rugby the idea that rugby-playing countries with independent traditions can unite in common purpose is somehow old hat.

But if that were true, I would eat my hat, and enough voices are now being raised in the Lions' support that they may after all be conserved into the 21st century. As Ieuan Evans demonstrated when receiving his player-of-the-year award on Tuesday, the players want it more than anything else - so much so that in the end Pat O'Hara was ultimately the only one to be unavailable when the squad were chosen in March.

'It would be a tragedy if it ever happened,' the Wales captain said when asked about the danger to the Lions. 'It is the pinnacle of anyone's career.' Not least his own. What is Ieuan Evans's greatest rugby memory? Why, scoring the try that won the series for the Lions against Australia in 1989, of course.

Hastings, by the way, regards that success as a greater achievement than Scotland's 1990 Grand Slam. But despite this, we are told that New Zealanders widely expect this to be the last Lions tour of their country, which presumably means South Africans think the same about the tour due there in 1997. To which the answer is that this simply does not have to be. If many of the burdens being placed on leading players are intolerable, the Lions are not one of them.

On the other hand, conservation needs action rather than pious hope. With its unforgiving 13-match schedule, this tour will be anything but a jaunt for the 30 players who embark from Heathrow tonight. As John Dawes, the one British Isles captain to triumph in New Zealand, puts it: 'This is the hardest tour ever undertaken by the Lions.'

If they should contrive to win the three-Test series, they will have done the Lions concept the noblest service possible. But if they should go through the endless misfortune of Ciaran Fitzgerald's side of 1983, the last Lions to New Zealand, it would do exactly the opposite.

So what is the problem? According to Ronnie Dawson, himself a Lions captain of distinction, it is the proliferation of single-country international rugby - soon to be exacerbated by an interminable round of World Cup qualifying. 'The pressure is now so great on the top internationals that it's reaching breaking point,' he said.

Dawson is chairman of the home unions' touring committee. As this puts him in nominal charge of the Lions, more fighting talk might be in order. Instead, he said: 'It's been debated in the committee of home unions. At the moment there's unanimity with the hope that they will continue. But it would be a brave man who would say anything is certain in the longer term with this hugely increased pressure.'

For Wales, who have to qualify for the 1995 World Cup, the 'hugely increased pressure' will be two games next May, probably against Spain and Portugal, probably followed by games against Italy and Romania in the autumn to determine their first-round group in South Africa. I quite fail to see how this would impact on the Lions.

Indeed, if you ask Geoff Cooke, the manager of this tour, it is not the Lions but rugby at a far lower level that should - and, I submit, eventually will - be under more threat. 'We are talking about lessening the demands on players by scraping the icing off the cake,' Cooke said.

'But if I were a player it would be things like the World Cup and Lions tour that I would want to play in; it's the icing you want. What we have to be looking at is making the cake smaller. We are focusing on the things the players really want. It's the demands of the domestic season we should be looking to reduce.'

To which Ian McGeechan, the coach, would give a hearty endorsement. And after three previous Lions tours as player or coach, he is better qualified than anyone to say so. 'I can only say that any national side going to New Zealand would be seen as a second-class fixture compared with the Lions.'

So long live the Lions, but this is one trip when to travel hopefully may be better than arriving. The coach has a master plan, which he will not yet divulge, to beat the All Blacks, but the doubts over selection are such that the best reason anyone has yet come up with for anticipating Lions success is nothing more or less than McGeechan himself.

'Rightly or wrongly, I have a picture of how I want us to play,' he said. 'That way is not reflected in any one nation or any one style of play that occurs in the Five Nations. Certain parts of our team, if used properly, can give New Zealand a lot of trouble.

'We have other areas we undoubtedly have to improve. The first month will be geared to doing that so that by the time we get to New Zealand in a Test match we will be ready.' Disarmingly simple it may sound, but just because it is McGeechan saying so you tend to believe it.

Simple or otherwise, the Lions are under no illusions: it will actually be unbearably hard. Because the tour is shorter than previous ones to New Zealand (1983's was 18 matches, Dawes's in 1971 26 including Australia), the rugby is more intensive and the fixture list more loaded against the Lions than ever previously.

To accept a midweek match against Waikato, who went on to become provincial champions, between the second and third Tests was either wilfully reckless or masochistic. Still, as McGeechan says, this is the way - the only way - to earn the respect of New Zealanders, for whom the Five Nations' Championship is the second division of international rugby.

You can question the pace of the Lions pack, the age of the more venerable tourists, the number of Englishmen, but what you cannot question is that they are embarking on the greatest adventure of their rugby lives. Or should that be misadventure?

Wade Dooley, the England lock, will sit out today's final training session because of a 'sore leg'.

THE BRITISH ISLES SQUAD

FULL-BACKS

*Gavin Hastings (Watsonians & Scotland) Captain. Age 31, 45 caps

*Anthony Clement (Swansea & Wales) Age 26, 20 caps

WINGS

*Ieuan Evans (Llanelli & Wales) 29, 36

Ian Hunter (Northampton & England) 24, 3

*Rory Underwood (Leicester, RAF & England) 29, 60

Tony Underwood (Leicester & England) 24, 4

CENTRES

Will Carling (Harlequins & England) 27, 42

Scott Gibbs (Swansea & Wales) 22, 18

*Jeremy Guscott (Bath & England) 27, 28

*Scott Hastings (Watsonians & Scotland) 28, 46

OUTSIDE-HALVES

*Rob Andrew (Wasps & England) 30, 52

Stuart Barnes (Bath & England) 30, 10

SCRUM-HALVES

*Robert Jones (Swansea and Wales) 27, 46

Dewi Morris (Orrell & England) 29, 15

PROPS

Paul Burnell (London Scottish & Scotland) 27, 29

Jason Leonard (Harlequins & England) 24, 25

Nick Popplewell (Greystones & Ireland) 29, 18

Peter Wright (Boroughmuir & Scotland) 25, 5

HOOKERS

Ken Milne (Heriot's FP & Scotland) 31, 25

*Brian Moore (Harlequins & England) 31, 45

LOCKS

Martin Bayfield (Northampton & England) 26,12

Damian Cronin (London Scottish & Scotland) 30, 28

*Wade Dooley (Preston Grasshoppers & England) 35, 55

Andy Reed (Bath & Scotland) 24, 4

FLANKERS

Mick Galwey (Shannon & Ireland) 26, 13

*Mike Teague (Moseley & England) 33, 27

Richard Webster (Swansea & Wales) 25, 13

*Peter Winterbottom (Harlequins & England) 32, 58

NO 8s

Ben Clarke (Bath & England) 25, 5

*Dean Richards (Leicester & England) 29, 34

Manager: Geoff Cooke (England).

Coach/assistant manager: Ian McGeechan (Scotland).

Assistant coach: Dick Best (England).

Doctor: James Robson (Scotland).

Physiotherapist: Kevin Murphy (England).

* denotes previous Lion

(Photograph and map omitted)

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