Rugby Union: Lions' wounds just part of the professional evolution: Talk of the British Isles being systematically softened up in New Zealand is misplaced, writes Chris Rea from Christchurch

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AN OLD Bob Hope story came painfully to mind at the end of a wearisome journey to New Zealand last week. 'I would like,' Hope said to his travel agent, 'to book a direct flight to London, but I want my luggage to go via Sydney, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bahrain, and Paris.' Not possible, was the reply. 'Well', Hope said, 'you managed it last time.'

Air travel, despite the advances made in speed and comfort, can be an irksome business, particularly if it includes a stopover in Australia. There are so many prohibitive restrictions on those entering the country that it is a wonder that they have any immigrant population at all. Not even a suitcase a matter of yards behind the cordon of bleak-faced passport control officers could be recovered without the necessary papers, with the almost inevitable result that at the same time as this tired and emotional traveller was arriving at Dunedin, his suitcase was entering the final lap of its circuit on the carousel at Auckland.

For the Lions it has been a 'tempus horribile' and for Wade Dooley, whose father's sudden death overshadowed everything else, it is a tragic end to a magnificent rugby career. The Lions' management have kept his tour place open should he wish to return, and Dooley himself has intimated that he might rejoin the party, but I doubt that he will. He will be followed home tomorrow by Scott Hastings, unrecognisable behind a mouthful of wire and a grotesquely swollen cheek.

From a distance, and from the wilder excesses of tabloid outrage it may appear that it is open season on the Lions and that New Zealand's provincial sides are deliberately targeting and maiming key players in order to soften them up for the All Blacks. But that would be a distortion of the truth. Apart from some indiscriminate use of the boot and fist by over-zealous Southland players at Invercargill in mid-week, the rugby has, in the main, been physically brutal but fair. The injuries have mostly resulted from accidents rather than premeditated violence. Will Carling's thigh is the recurrence of an injury which has been troubling him for some time.

There was nothing malicious about Martin Bayfield's free fall from the line-out, and it was a remorseful and apologetic Robert Jones who accidentally cut open Stuart Barnes' head. The soft pitch was to blame for Scott Gibbs' twisted ankle, and if there was an element of suspicion about the relentless pounding of Rob Andrew, the tourists have made no mention of it. Nor are they complaining.

The injury toll, terrible as it is, has not yet reached anything like the proportions of the 1980 Lions tour to South Africa when replacements were being flown in at the rate of almost one a week. If any group is to be held culpable for the Lions' plight it is those who agreed to such a punishing itinerary. In a radio interview during the week Stu Wilson, who in his prime carved up many a Lions defence, suggested that those responsible should be put up against a wall and shot. But Wilson has a short memory. Some years ago Andy Leslie's All Blacks played what amounted to three Test matches in a week and yet managed to emerge unscathed and unbeaten. The universal desire and the practical need for shorter tours, coupled with the financial requirements of the host union, mean that there are no longer any easy matches, a fact of touring life which this Lions side have fully accepted.

The only player the Lions might have wanted to call upon for the first Test who was unavailable was Dooley. Gibbs, who has been in stunningly good form, was undoubtedly a serious challenger to Carling, but it was always likely that the selectors would stick with the tried, tested and so often magical pairing of the two English centres. Deserved as it is, the elevation of Ben Clarke to Test status and his almost indecently swift transfer from No 8 to the blind- side flank is nevertheless a criticism of the original selections in the position.

The Lions' misfortunes apart, it has been a newsworthy week. The entire country was, as usual, closed on Sunday and again on Monday which was a bank holiday. But the announcement of the All Blacks Club, set up to create job opportunities and career and study grants for New Zealand's top players, will cause near apoplexy in some quarters. There is talk of players being able to earn as much as pounds 40,000 a year from the scheme, which is designed to keep New Zealand's best players in the game and in the country. It is one of the more absurd ironies of the present situation that the administrators here are hoping that the establishment of the club will help to prevent the mass emigration of players to the northern hemisphere during the close season. The material benefits of such a move are substantial and yet the New Zealand Rugby Union know that the fiercest resistance to their plans will come from the northern hemisphere countries.

Meanwhile the International Board appears powerless to halt the near anarchy coursing through the game in all areas and at all levels. During a televised match between New South Wales and Queensland, Nick Farr-Jones, who was acting as an expert analyser, talked blithely of a tactical substitution. There was not even the pretence of an injury. The truth is that, like the dissolution of apartheid, which, once the process was set in motion, was completed before many realised that it had begun, there can be no half-way house in the dismantling of amateurism. The longer one stays in this part of the world the more obvious it is that sooner or later the game, at the top level at least, is destined to become fully professional.