Alan Watkins: Permanent Lions would relieve grimness of the game

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The Independent Online

On Saturday I treated the Barbarians v New Zealand at Twickenham with what the late George Brown used to call a complete ignoral, reserving my enthusiasm for Wasps v Leicester at High Wycombe on the following day. By all accounts, I was right.

On Saturday I treated the Barbarians v New Zealand at Twickenham with what the late George Brown used to call a complete ignoral, reserving my enthusiasm for Wasps v Leicester at High Wycombe on the following day. By all accounts, I was right. My colleagues agreed that Sunday's match was an epic encounter, full of pride and passion; whereas the previous afternoon's entertainment was exhibition rugby merely, signifying little or nothing.

Yes, indeed. So it was. How true, how very true.

Yet am I, I wonder, completely alone in growing rather weary of these epic encounters? Would it not be a refreshing change to watch a game - not an exhibition match, but a club game that meant something - being contested closely but without the displays of petulance, bad temper and intermittent violence which Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio, to name but a few, put on for our benefit from the opening minutes?

The hero of the afternoon was, I thought, the referee, Nigel Williams. I approved of his decision not to award Wasps a penalty try in the closing minutes because I disapprove of penalty tries generally. They were inaugurated by the jovial Tony Spreadbury in the University match some years ago. Afterwards they acquired a brief popularity. Today they are awarded less often.

True, Williams threatened Johnson with a penalty try if Leicester persisted in killing the ball. He then blew up, more, it seemed, to save any further arguments than because he really had to bring the match to an end. As Warren Gatland, the Wasps coach, said nobly afterwards, it would have been unsatisfactory to win through a penalty try. They always leave a nasty taste, like executions in a war.

The odd thing about these epic encounters is that, however hard they may be fought, numerous points are usually scored somehow. Thus Sunday's match at High Wycombe saw 68 points on the board, of which 48 (including conversions and a drop-kick) came from the boot.

Incidentally, if England are looking for a reliable kicker - as they ought to be, for Charlie Hodgson, however well he may kick for Sale, is clearly subject to international nerves - they or Andy Robinson could do worse than give a chance to Andy Goode, of Leicester, who has many of the virtues of Dusty Hare, and is bigger than he looks.

Well though Goode and his Wasps counterpart, Mark van Gisbergen, performed on Sunday, their skills are not what most people come to rugby matches to view. They do not come to watch the ball kicked over the crossbar and between the posts for offences which they did not see and could not understand even if they had been able to observe them.

Here is a modest proposal to lighten the grimness which is probably an inevitable consequence of professionalism. It is to revive the Barbarians in a new form. Some would say that what it amounts to is disbanding the Barbarians, and they might be right. It would come to running the British and Irish Lions as a permanent operation.

Accordingly, last Saturday's match against New Zealand would not have been contested by some southern hemisphere All Stars XV but by the Lions. And the match would not, of course, have been on a Heineken Cup weekend.

With the loss through retirement from the international game or injury of Johnson, Dallaglio, Neil Back and Richard Hill, it is not only England that have suffered. These islands are worse off too. With Jonny Wilkinson out of contention as well, we have two world-class backs in Brian O'Driscoll and Jason Robinson, and two forwards in Julian White and Paul McConnell. I am choosing O'Driscoll and Mike Tindall in the centre, and leaving it to them and the coaches to decide whoplays inside and outside - or whether to revert to left and right. The team, based on form in the recent one-off internationals:

J Robinson (England); G Murphy (Ireland), B O'Driscoll (Ireland), M Tindall (England), J Lewsey (England); R O'Gara (Ireland), D Peel (Wales); G Rowntree (England), S Byrne (Ireland), J White (England), M O'Kelly (Ireland), P McConnell (Ireland), J Worsley (England), M Corry (England), C Charvis (Wales).

On present form New Zealand would, I fear, beat this lot without too much trouble. Sir Clive Woodward clearly has a good deal to do before the summer of 2005.

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