Rugby Union: Lions sessions could add required bite to British rugby

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IT IS still being said that England's performance in the World Cup was "disappointing". What puzzles me is why anyone should have expected it to be any different. Clive Woodward, the coach, had at his disposal four outstanding forwards in Neil Back, Richard Hill, Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson. Matt Dawson was a more than adequate substitute for Kyran Bracken, as he had been for Robert Howley in the Lions' South Africa tour of 1997. Dan Luger proved to be the best wing in the home nations - rivalled only by Cameron Murray of Scotland.

But Woodward had left holes in a side that was like a chunk of Swiss cheese. He could not decide between Paul Grayson and Johnny Wilkinson, whether as goal-kicker or as outside half. He had provided no adequate cover at centre for a hesitant and often injured Will Greenwood and an ageing Jeremy Guscott, who was presumably a worried man also on account of his forthcoming court case, now resolved in his favour.

In retrospect it can be seen that the most crucial episode in English rugby of the 1990s was the failure to secure the services of Gary Connolly of Wigan. Woodward wanted him but the Rugby Football Union failed to come up with the required financial goods. I saw him play several part-seasons for Harlequins a few years ago. He won matches because of his ability not only to spot a gap but also to stay upright in the tackle and to offload the ball to a better placed team-mate. He would have been invaluable.

In the circumstances it was astonishing that England performed so well in losing the opening match against New Zealand. John Hart - unfairly disgraced in his native land, while Woodward is treated indulgently in England - described it as a classic encounter.

The defeat of England's unrealistic expectations, which Woodward had done so much to encourage, has brought about a change in the pattern of world rugby. We all remember the boastful talk of the mid decade. It was the time of the new, brutalist Twickenham stadium; England's successes in the Five Nations' Championship; the exclusive deal with Sky Television; and the adoption of the old public school dressing-room song "Swing Low Sweet Chariot".

It was the time when the name of Virginia Bottomley, present at the match against Ireland, was loudly booed when it was announced over the Twickenham public address system. I knew for certain then that the Conservatives were going to lose the next election.

It was also the time when the RFU, or some of its members, decided that England's true place lay at the top table alongside Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. And France? Of course, the French were good, but they were not to be relied on. They would go their own way. Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the so-called Celtic nations - "so-called" because each nation is different, and complicated in its own way - would form their own Second Division championship, with or without France. This talk can no longer be heard. Instead it is all of European rugby, and how the standard can be improved. The United Kingdom may be uneasy within the European Union. But in rugby terms, England, after a brief attempted flirtation with the southern hemisphere, has rejoined Europe.

My constructive proposal of the week is that the British Lions or, as some people now insist on calling them, the British and Irish Lions, should be in regular sessions. Alternatively or additionally, French and Italian players could be brought in to a European team. Many years ago I wrote in this column that rugby football had yet to catch up with the invention of the jet engine. In the meantime it has done so - only too much, I would say. During the pre-Christmas period in the years leading up to the World Cup, Twickenham resembled nothing so much as Clapham Junction in the rush hour. National teams from the southern hemisphere were coming and going, paths crossing and re-crossing.

It was an illustration of a good idea having got out of hand, chiefly because of commercial greed. The worst aspect was that players were expected to perform when they had played too many matches on the trot or had not been given enough time to recover from their flight. Would it not be a good idea to use the pre-Christmas period instead for matches in which a British Isles or European side played two or three of the southern hemisphere countries at Twickenham, in Cardiff or in Paris? It has always struck me as sad that a Lions party disbands after a tour until the next one comes along.

With professionalisation, and the admission to national sides here of Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans in possession of a lucky granny, it is by no means certain that there will be another Lions tour. As the Barbarians are now but a pale shadow of their former selves, there is a good deal to be said for turning the Lions into a side that play at home as well as away.