Rugby Union: Lions need home action

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IT WAS on the return flight from the calamitous Lions tour of New Zealand in 1983 that a pressure group of Scottish players descended upon a dispirited and disillusioned Jim Telfer and lifted him from his melancholy by reaffirming their faith in him. There and then they persuaded Telfer to continue as national coach the following season. His and their reward was a Grand Slam.

In different circumstances Ian McGeechan returned victorious from the 1989 Lions tour to Australia to coach the Scots to another triumph in the home championship. The Scots, therefore, have been the chief beneficiaries of Lions tours in recent times, although whether the baleful crew who represented Scotland in the Lions midweek XV this summer can infuse their compatriots with the necessary will and skill to secure Europe's ultimate prize for a fourth time in Scotland's history, is seriously in doubt.

The humiliation heaped on the Lions by Hawkes Bay and Waikato surely brought McGeechan as close as any coach has come to disowning his players. Yet it would not be the first time that players who have looked so thoroughly inept in a Lions jersey have performed legendary feats for their native countries. This may, of course, be more of a reflection on the standards of the game here than on the calibre of the players.

Despite the players' insistence that the Lions concept must be preserved, a reassessment of their relevance to the modern game and their position in it is long overdue. Since the war, the Lions have played 37 Tests in New Zealand and South Africa and have won only 11. Were this another sport, the ruling body would, long ago, have been seeking aid from our European partners in an attempt to even up old scores.

On the other side of the coin, the record of the individual countries against the invasion forces from New Zealand and South Africa is even worse. Of the 62 internationals played, the All Blacks and Springboks have won 50, the home countries a meagre 12. And in recent times the Australians have disfigured the record books still further.

Those of us who have lobbied over the years for the Lions to abandon their peripatetic existence and to unite in the common task of beating the world's most powerful nations at home as well as overseas, have more than enough statistical ammunition. Apart from anything else, by regularly confronting touring sides at home in a three Test series, the Lions would be better prepared for the infinitely more demanding job of playing and winning overseas.

It would undoubtedly mean a more demanding schedule for the tourists, but no more so than the punishing itinerary faced by the 1993 Lions. And I defy England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales to inflict a defeat on the All Blacks as savage as the one Waikato laid on our hapless tourists this summer.

If the Lions are to have a meaningful and worthy future - and under the present constraints and initiatives such as the World Cup many of us doubt that they do - then something of the sort will have to be considered before we again send out the cream of our rugby talent to the high veld to face a Springbok machine which by then will have been fully restored to its former glory.

Even with the best management team since 1971 and with a back division as potentially strong as any the Lions have put in the field, the 1993 tourists were saved from abject failure by their performance in the second Test at Wellington, which was by any standards a magnificent achievement. But had the tour gone on for another two weeks there was a very real chance of complete disintegration.

There were selections made before the tour began as bizarre as any in Lions history, a failure to advance the back play to heights which had been hinted at earlier in the tour, and a tactical inflexibility which was so glaringly obvious in the deciding Test at Eden Park. With international tours becoming shorter, there is simply not the time to assemble, prepare and arm what is a scratch side for combat against the world's best.

In the meantime, the country likely to reap most benefit from this summer would seem to be England. Just a couple of cubs short of a full Lions pack, there are players queuing up to take over from Peter Winterbottom on the open-side flank with Neil Back surely at the front. He should have been in New Zealand. Victor Ubogu had a good tour with the B side in Canada, but should Jason Leonard wish to remain in his Lions place at tight head there are several promising young loose heads coming through. The back division is the finest in the Five Nations' Championship. So who is to stop England? It is a question to which too often for England's liking there has been an answer.