Rugby Union: Nationalism sacrificed for party unity: The Lions have a gameplan to combat isolationism and keep spirits high. Steve Bale reports from Dunedin

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The Independent Online
AS THE Lions are now at the business end of their New Zealand tour, we are about to discover whether they really are as homogeneous - or simply united, to use a word of which the 1989 Lions manager, Clive Rowlands, was fond - as appearances suggest.

As earlier Lions have sometimes demonstrated, appearances can be deceptive. The 1977 tour of New Zealand with its Welsh coach, Welsh captain, 16 Welshmen and two subsequent Welsh replacements, became notorious for the excessive influence of one country, though John Dawes, the coach, always denied it had been a problem.

This tour began with 15 Englishmen, and even though Ian Hunter's injury has reduced that to 14 it is still a preponderance that might have been uncomfortable if things had gone amiss. 'The English are more open and worldly; I never anticipated there would be any problems,' Geoff Cooke, manager of the Lions, said. Cooke happens also to be manager of England.

But when Cooke expresses admiration for the way players from four countries have come together, he has to qualify his admiration with a certain doubt as to whether this will persist once the Test series starts and thankless selection decisions have to be taken.

In fact the mood palpably altered the moment the Lions side, with obvious Test connotations, for today's game against Otago became known. For the first time all 30 tourists now appreciate, more or less, whether or not they are in favour. Some, as Cooke wrily acknowledged, will react better than others. 'It will be up to us to make sure they understand,' he said.

In other words, this is the time at which the national instincts that Ian McGeechan, the coach, has purposely eradicated for the purposes of the tour are in greatest danger of reasserting themselves. To make his point, McGeechan even expressed disinterest when told the result of Scotland's game against Fiji. 'There's only one international team I'm concerned about at the moment,' he said.

Good for him, and good for his players - whether they be English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish - if they too recognise that in New Zealand they represent us all. To generate an esprit de corps among men who routinely oppose each other at home is far from easy, but for now the Lions of '93 are succeeding.

They do it by means both mundane and madcap. In Australia in 1989 hotel rooms were not shared by the same natonality and a forward would always be paired off with a back. This time there are so many Englishmen that the first part of the equation is impossible, not with the captain, Gavin Hastings, always having a room of his own.

But this week in Christchurch, for instance, Ieuan Evans, the Wales back, was in with Peter Winterbottom, the England forward. In Auckland last week Will Carling, the England back, shared with Mick Galwey, the Ireland forward. So the nationalities can still be divided most of the time and the forwards and backs all of the time.

Then there is the occasional players' court, a juvenile but apparently indispensible tour institution which in former times earned one England prop, Paul Rendall, his lifelong nickname: Judge. On this tour the judge is another prop, Ireland's Nick Popplewell - which is either a comment on judges or on props.

Yet another prop, the Scot Peter Wright, is defending counsel, Stuart Barnes the prosecutor, Brian Moore clerk of the court, and Damian Cronin and Dewi Morris the debt collectors. Among the heinous crimes for which undisclosed punishments can be inflicted is being seen speaking to the press.

Barnes's role guarantees him a fearful punishment when the tables are turned at the final court session of the tour. But if anyone can take it, it is the England stand-off, a cosmopolitan fellow well used to having things thrown at him by his coach at Bath, Jack Rowell.

Indeed Barnes emerged within days as one of the Lions' characters - both frivolously, as a japester (though he could never compare with Scott Hastings), and seriously, as a tactical thinker. Whether he wins a Test place remains problematic, Rob Andrew's leg injury meaning that outside-half is one position about which no firm conclusions could be drawn from the selection to play Otago.

Barnes, though, was particularly pleased to be playing since it meant renewing acquaintances with the referee, Colin Hawke. This was the man Barnes described, publicly and repeatedly, as a cheat for his handling of last year's second international between his England B team and a New Zealand XV at Pukekohe. Unprecedentedly for Barnes, he is now gagged. 'We are not allowed to savage referees,' he winced.

Barnes is one of 11 Lions providing ghosted columns for a variety of newspapers back home. Some of the handling sequences have been round Fleet Street and beyond, like when the Manchester Evening News passed to the Daily Mail and the ball went through the Cork Examiner, Mail on Sunday and Today before finally reaching Wales on Sunday.

The Cork Examiner is Galwey, one of the small but essential Irish contingent. Those Lions who still enjoy a small libation depute big Mick to contact the Irish bar wherever they may be and when he informs mine host that the boys are in town, the Guinness is on the house. This week it has flowed in Rosie O'Grady's in Dunedin; last week it was Kitty O'Brien's in Auckland.

On such things do the spirit of the Lions and the forging of a new Lions identity depend. There has been some fun, but how much enjoyment there can now be is another thing altogether, especially now that the stomachs are tightening with the Christchurch Test only a week away. 'When the first-Test side is finally announced, that's a watershed,' Cooke said.

'That's when the true test of the collective spirit and will of the party will come because there will be a situation where players suddenly find themselves in a secondary role and have to mask their disappointment in the collective interest.' As Cooke knows, this is easier said than done, but a few pints of Guinness should do the trick.

(Photograph omitted)

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