Rugby Union: Straddling the generation gap

LIONS TOUR '97: For the first trip of the professional era to be a success, the past victories and defeats in South Africa need to be forgotten, says Chris Hewett who, below, profiles Eric Miller - the youngest of the party - and Ieuan Evans - the oldest
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The Independent Online
Young and old, chalk and cheese, a novice loose forward on the threshold of fame and fortune, a seasoned threequarter with a memory bank chock-full of golden reminiscences. Eleven years, six months and three days separate Eric Miller, the fresh-faced toddler of the Lions party, and Ieuan Evans, the wizened elder statesman. In terms of experience, 11 centuries would be a more appropriate margin.

At 33, Evans the tourist has been there and done it all for the Lions, not once but twice: Australia in 1989, when a series-winning try in Sydney left David Campese with a hint of rouge on his cheeks, followed by a compelling struggle with Va'aiga Tuigamala in New Zealand four years later. The last time Miller went on tour, he visited Zimbabwe with his Dublin schoolmates.

Indeed Miller, christened "Baby Deano" by the Leicester faithful this season, had yet to lay a hand on a rugby ball at the time Evans was giving the Wallabies the slip and sending Bob Dwyer, the Australian coach, purple- faced in apoplectic fury. The fact that Dwyer now coaches the 21-year- old Irishman at Welford Road is just another strand in the tangled web of inter-personal relationships that endows top-flight rugby.

"It was Gaelic football and soccer for me in the early days," Miller recalled this week. "In my early teens, I wouldn't have been able to name a Lion, or even tell you who the Lions were. Sounds terrible, doesn't it? But until I was 14 and I went to boarding school in Dublin, rugby just didn't figure in my life.

"This time last year, I was still wondering exactly what I could expect to achieve in this game, if anything. I wasn't playing big rugby at either club or provincial level - not with any regularity, anyway - and I'd found the whole season pretty disappointing. So I set myself two bold targets: to win a first team place at Leicester and get myself a first cap for Ireland. I wasn't at all sure I'd get close to either, but here I am on a Lions tour."

Miller's prodigious footballing talent, allied to a versatility that allows him to perform any of the three back row roles with equal facility, could well make him one of the most influential players in South Africa. He can run, pass, jump, ruck, maul and tackle. What is more, he possesses a left boot to die for. "Even Joel Stransky stands aside when we need a decent clearance kick from close to the right touchline," says Neil Back, his fellow Tiger.

Evans will see rather less of the ball than his colleague in the coming weeks, but there are few tourists more certain of a Test place than the former Welsh captain. Like Miller, he spent a large part of the domestic campaign assuming he would watch the Lions from afar - not because he feared the selectors would pass him over, but because Kathryn, his fiancee, was expecting their first child. When the time came to make a decision, however, the old competitive instinct took hold.

"Of course there was a doubt," said the suitably besotted father of six-week-old Lili, "but this is special for a rugby player, isn't it?

"Forget the age business. If you can't dredge up some adrenaline for a tour like this, there is something badly wrong. I grew up with the Lions. I can remember getting out of bed in the middle of the night to watch them play a Test in New Zealand or South Africa. The magic never fades.

"It's been a gruelling season and it doesn't get any easier once you're past 30, that's for sure. But I picked up a couple of injuries this time round and, to be honest, they work wonders for your rest and recuperation. Now I understand why Gareth Edwards used to depend on his "Christmas hamstring" every year. I'm slowly building up a repertoire of my own."

In Evans' view, the fascination of this tour lies in the mutual unfamiliarity of the 35-man squad. "It's very a different atmosphere from '89 or '93. On the last tour, the vast majority of the squad had been in Australia four years previously, so we knew each other backwards. This time, there are only a handful of previous Lions, four or five at most, and because the club season has stopped us meeting up for weekend get-togethers as we did in the past, we've had to spend the whole of this week introducing ourselves.

"Still, I'm sure we'll gel very quickly. On Lions tours, there tend to be defining moments when the party becomes a real team. In '89, it happened against the Australian Capital Territory when we turned around a 23-point deficit and in '93, we did something similar against the Maoris."

Ah yes, the game Evans transformed with some bizarre round-the-houses running - back, across and finally forwards to the line. He smiles at the memory. "Listen," he says. "If you had half a dozen Maoris up your arse, you'd run backwards and sideways, too."

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