Rugby Union: Lions let out to play for clubs: Reluctant management bow to pressure

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The Independent Online
THE British Isles management last night reluctantly bowed to pressure from clubs and players by agreeing to grant an afternoon release from the pre-New Zealand training weekend to those involved in crucial league and cup games on 24 April.

The main beneficiaries will be the Courage Championship leaders, Bath, whose four Lions will thus be free to face Saracens at Southgate in their final First Division match, and Swansea, whose three Lions will be available for a Swalec Cup semi-final on the same day.

'We'd always thought that if it was critical for clubs and the players wanted to play we would not stand in their way,' Ian McGeechan, the Lions coach, said. 'It's making my job more difficult but I didn't want the players to be grudging in anything they were doing with the Lions.'

McGeechan does not pretend to being happy at having to make the decision. The relentlessly high quality of the Lions' opposition from the very start of the tour has given added importance to this month's training weekend in London and the two days' preparation before the tourists depart for New Zealand on 13 May. With three Tests against the All Blacks lying ahead, it is little enough - especially as McGeechan, having coached the Lions in Australia in 1989, knows full well how hard it can be to blend the home countries' four nationalities.

'The players have to realise the pressure they will be under with that amount of preparation,' he added. 'They will have to be educated very quickly and I'll try to do that to the best of my ability before they get there. There was no easy weekend for us to get together but it's very important we do so before we finally meet to leave for the tour. We did it in '89 and it was very useful. I'm prepared to let them have the afternoon off, but everything else stands.' The players will gather on the evening of 22 April and disperse at lunchtime on the 25th.

The leeway allowed by McGeechan and the Lions manager, Geoff Cooke, was met with relief last night by Stuart Barnes, Bath's England stand- off. 'It was a very difficult dilemma. The Lions tour has to be the most important thing in our rugby lives, but at the same time if I'd been training while Bath were going for the title my mind couldn't help but be elsewhere.'

Neil Matthews, the Gloucester stand-off, has joined Bristol and hopes to play for his new club over Easter.

Welsh in turmoil,

Alan Watkins, page 32