Bill Beaumont, a Lions captain in his prime and the manager of the 2005 vintage, caused a political stir in All Black circles yesterday when he criticised the silver-ferned management's decision not to release leading international players for provincial fixtures. Beaumont believes the policy devalues the Lions concept, threatens its future and makes it easier for opponents to question the relevance of a four-nation gathering once every four years.
"I do have concerns," the former England lock said after raising the issue at an official function following the Lions' victory over Wellington yesterday. "I have no argument with the tour itinerary or with the quality of the fixtures, but I think it a pity that Lions teams do not always meet opponents at full strength.
"My interest is in preserving the Lions for future generations of players and supporters. That aim is not helped by this sort of thing. There are those who believe we should simply play three Tests and go home again... I would be fiercely against that idea because I believe it runs counter to the Lions ethos, but if we don't face the best players, it helps those who want to see an end to these tours make their argument."
Beaumont's words may have been aimed at the New Zealanders, but they were every bit as much for British and Irish consumption. Some at the Rugby Football Union have questioned the sustainability of the Lions in the professional era, and support for the collective from Premiership clubs has frequently been less than whole-hearted. England's victory in the 2003 World Cup persuaded some Twickenham types that there was no logic in continuing with the Lions, though defeats in New Zealand last summer put that theory into perspective.
Wellington were well below strength yesterday. Graham Henry released one member of his squad, Ma'a Nonu, but withheld Jerry Collins, Rodney So'oialo, Conrad Smith and the national captain, Tana Umaga. On Saturday, when the tourists play in Dunedin, they will meet an Otago side without the likes of Carl Hayman, Anton Oliver and James Ryan.
John Plumtree, the Wellington coach, did not openly criticise Henry when pressed on the subject after the match, but he was frustrated at the absence of his most accomplished performers. "There was a full house for this match and had we played the Lions with everyone on board, it would have been interesting," he said. "We'd certainly have enjoyed having those blokes around."
This issue has plagued the last three Lions tours. In 1997, the South African coach, Carel du Plessis, held back his Springboks from provincial games to disrupt his opponents' preparations for the Test series. Four years later in Australia, only the Queensland team fielded their Wallabies. Both New South Wales and the ACT Brumbies went in light against the visitors.
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