Alan Watkins: England to lose monopoly on Woodward's Lions share

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The Independent Online

The entente cordiale may not be at its height in Britain but it is, I am glad to say, flourishing among rugby writers. Last week most of us chose our Six Nations XV, based on form in the Championship which has just ended. Nothing new about that. What was new was that most of us (though not this one) included a good number of players from France and even the odd one from Italy in our final selection.

Even a decade ago, such eclecticism was confined to the French newspapers. Otherwise it would have been a boring exercise for them, because they would have had to confine themselves to France. But what used to be the British press's insularity did have a certain reason to it. This was that the Lions touring party was selected only from the Home Nations.

They used to be called the British Lions. Today the preferred title is British and Irish Lions. To some, this may be a welcome piece of accuracy. To others, it may be political correctness gone mad. But the older title was neither wholly irrational nor unconsciously imperialistic. For it is still, after all, the British Isles. And the Ireland side contain numerous representatives from what is still part of the United Kingdom in the north. Indeed, rugby is about the only activity, sporting or otherwise, in which Ireland is united.

What is fairly evident is that we shall not see the European Lions, or whatever animal is chosen to symbolise the continent; not, at any rate, in my lifetime. If there were such a touring party, the French speakers would presumably have to subordinate themselves to the English speakers; rather as, when the South Africans tour, the English speakers have to take second place to the speakers of Afrikaans, or did so until recently.

But the French have always put up with monolingual English-speaking referees, as they continue to do, with what I have always thought was a remarkable degree of toleration. Some years ago there was an outstanding ad hoc fixture at the old Twickenham stadium, when a European XV played a team from the southern hemisphere. The Europeans did not disgrace themselves, but the players from the southern hemisphere confirmed what was then their acknowledged superiority.

It is too early to say, as some commentators did after that gruelling France v England match, that the balance of rugby power has now shifted the other way. But changed it has. And, reluctant as I am to propose additional fixtures in an overcrowded year - for rugby, like football, now goes on for 12 months in one form or another - an annual match between Europe and the southern hemisphere would unquestionably be an interesting occasion.

For the moment, we have England's (in my view unnecessarily punishing) tour of Australia and New Zealand in the summer, and the Lions' tour of New Zealand next year. For both, the manager is Clive Woodward, England's head coach, as he prefers to call himself.

The truth is that Woodward's appointment does not look quite such a bright idea as it did when it was made. In retrospect, he should have been the manager of the Lions in Australia in 2001 instead of Graham Henry, who has now returned from Wales to New Zealand and who then produced an unhappy party and contrived to lose a series he should have won. It is remarkable that Colin Charvis, Ben Cohen and Matt Dawson, to name only three, have recovered from their experiences on that trip as fully as they have.

Woodward looks as if he will be closer to Fran Cotton, whose management of the 1997 South African tour was much admired. Cotton was comparable to Doug Smith in New Zealand in 1971 and Syd Millar in South Africa in 1974. However, he took along more players than the last two, 35, and had better supporting facilities.

The new manager seems determined to outdo Cotton on both counts. He appears to want to box the national compass by appointing four subsidiary coaches, which is probably a good idea. He also wants to take a party of 40, to be divided between 20 for the Test side and 20 for the midweek side, which is almost certainly not such a good idea. He says that the reason for this is to break down the distinction between Test players and no-hopers. But it seems to me to produce the very effect which he says he is anxious to avoid.

We may be sure that he will be well organised. However, even two months ago we all thought he would be organising chiefly England players. No longer. The only players to secure 100 per cent support from my team-picking colleagues were Paul O'Connell and Gordon D'Arcy of Ireland. From Wales, Gareth Cooper, Stephen Jones and Shane Williams also showed up well. Woodward's men look likely to come from the whole of Great Britain and Ireland and not mainly from England.