Rugby Union: Rare breed confronts the threat of extinction: Lions place remains players' greatest ambition

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TO HEAR the announcement of the British Isles tour party for New Zealand amid the stuffed-shirt opulence of the East India Club was to realise again that this is an institution that should - must - never be sacrificed even on the altar of the World Cup.

The players want it, the rugby public want it and, most zealously of all, the host unions in the southern hemisphere want it. When England B were in New Zealand last year and the All Blacks were about to visit Australia and South Africa, it was the Lions that were on the Kiwis' lips.

So why the worry that the Lions, soon to play a three-Test series against New Zealand, may become extinct even before their next scheduled tour, to South Africa in 1997? After all, the administrators thought they had come up with a neat alternation between Lions tours and World Cups every two years.

Would that it had been so simple. The World Cup has been in existence for two tournaments and already it has become far more than an enervating month of rugged competition once in four years. There are now years of preparation, tours galore, even the World Sevens.

But selection for a Lions tour, and still more for a Lions Test team, is the supreme accolade to which players here can aspire. As long as they want it, so it will continue - and right now they want it more than anything.

In the end there was only one fit player, the Ireland flanker Pat O'Hara, who was unavailable when the selectors finalised their choice of 30 on Sunday. Terry Kingston, the Ireland hooker, went so far as to rescind his non-availability as soon as England had been trounced in Dublin. He was too late.

The issue is whether all these ambitious young men can sustain the pace and withstand the pressure that these tours create - and then be back in shape for a World Cup. Which is why the International Board has brought forward its discussion of the interval between World Cups from 1995 to its meeting in Edinburgh next month.

The logical extension of this is that World Cups, and by extension Lions tours, may be more widely spaced out, though rugby would then run into the horrendous complication that its premier international tournament would inevitably fall in the same year as its football equivalent or the Olympic Games.

Those charged with responsibility for the Lions - the committee of home unions, chaired by Ronnie Dawson - are scarcely unequivocal in demanding the preservation of this rare breed. Everyone wants it, but no one can quite bring himself to articulate the paramount importance of tours that are unlike anything undertaken by any of the home countries individually.

Dawson, Ireland's hooker from 1958-64, was a great Lion himself, leading the tour to Australasia in 1959 and captaining the side in six Tests. 'Anybody who has been involved with Lions rugby appreciates all its positive qualities and the very civilising effect it has on home-unions rugby,' he said.

'Where the difficulties arise has been since the introduction of the Rugby World Cup and especially the first three at four-year intervals. Obviously it's here to stay, but that has put enormous pressure on top players and perhaps something has got to go.'

At a domestic level, the point is made by the Welsh Cup final - only three days before the tourists assemble. There is no cut-off point and all four Welsh Lions could be involved. 'If Llanelli get to the final and I didn't play, I'd be lynched,' the Wales captain, Ieuan Evans, said.

On the other hand neither he nor Anthony Clement nor Scott Gibbs nor Richard Webster will be available for the semi-finals, since they take place when the Lions have their preliminary get-together. No question there about where the priority lies - and those who would kill off the Lions should understand as much.

'There are opinions abroad that say the Lions are under threat,' Dawson said. 'But those who are associated with the Lions are very hopeful that they will remain. As far as the southern-hemisphere unions are concerned, that is the piece of rugby from the northern hemisphere they want to see, rather than individual tours by individual countries.

'There are so many pluses for it and it would be a great shame if it were to come under threat. The current pressure to which the top players are subjected is ferocious and nearly unsustainable. We are asking far, far too much of them.'

To which the reply must be: ask the players, ask all those Irishmen who would give their right arm to join Nick Popplewell and Mick Galwey, ask Robert Jones, Jon Webb and Jeff Probyn. The World Cup of '91 is now a memory and they all aspired to be among the Lions of '93.

By the time the Lions tour South Africa, the World Cup of '95 will also be a memory and, however inordinate the pressure, I can guarantee here and now that the Lions aspirations of the international generation of '97 will be no less than any of its predecessors.