Rugby Union: Lions stalked by shadow

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The Independent Online
HERE is a prophecy for 1993: that the overdue tour by the British Isles to New Zealand will triumphantly vindicate the Lions. It will be an act of conservation in protection of what some see as an endangered species.

This is not to say they will win the three-Test series. As their coach, Ian McGeechan, likes to point out, the All Blacks are successfully developing a new generation of players and even at an early stage of that development were within an ace of winning their series against Australia last July. No one else has been able to say as much since England took the Wallabies all the way in the 1991 World Cup final.

Indeed it is the World Cup that has pointed the finger and, of all things, it is old Lions of great repute such as Syd Millar who have been loudest in wonder whether these tours interspersed with World Cups is asking too much of amateurs. It would of course be mischievous to imagine this had anything to do with the paucity of representation the Irish can expect next summer.

But, just as the Lions' own Australian tour showed in 1989, the players of the home unions passionately want to be Lions and the host countries, not least South Africa in 1997, desperately want to receive them. To this day, many of those involved in losing once and then winning twice against the Wallabies insist that this was the most tense, intense and intensive experience of their rugby lives. For them, the memory is golden.

An All Black shadow looms over 1993, because no sooner has the Lions tour concluded than New Zealand will be going through England and Scotland. It is a reflection of changed priorities that England, who will certainly provide a preponderance of Lions, regard their Test against the Blacks as more significant even than a prospective, unprecedented third successive Grand Slam. 'That represents the major target for us next year if we have to prioritise things in that way,' Geoff Cooke, the England (and Lions) manager, said.

His team's Five Nations hegemony is such that the beating of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and France has for now become almost routine, and the constant refrain is that the real proof of excellence will be adduced only when southern-hempisphere countries are beaten as regularly as their poorer northern cousins.

Thus while the other four nations, all to varying degrees in transition, will celebrate any and every Championship win, for the English it will be just another step on the road. The re-emergent South Africans may have been seen off last month but New Zealand and especially Australia have been reluctant victims, and by the time the All Blacks get to Murrayfield and Twickenham they will probably be as formidable as ever.