Barbarians fixtures should be thrown to the Lions

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The Independent Online

Judged by their performance against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, the Australians are not looking forward to playing the Barbarians tomorrow at the same ground. Indeed, on Sunday they did not seem to be looking forward to playing anyone but, rather, to catching the first aeroplane home to Oz.

Judged by their performance against Wales at the Millennium Stadium, the Australians are not looking forward to playing the Barbarians tomorrow at the same ground. Indeed, on Sunday they did not seem to be looking forward to playing anyone but, rather, to catching the first aeroplane home to Oz.

Even if the Australians had enjoyed a less arduous and more successful tour, I doubt whether this traditional fixture any longer fulfils any useful function; any more than, in a professional game, the touring club itself does. For instance, Swansea v Barbarians on Easter Monday was one of the high days of the rugby calendar. It has now disappeared from the fixture list.

Barbarians v the touring side at Cardiff, though often called traditional, impinged on the rugby consciousness only in the late 1960s, with Brian Lochore's New Zealand side and the rendition of "Now Is the Hour'' by the Welsh crowd. In 1973 the same fixture saw one of the finest matches and one of the greatest tries (by Gareth Edwards) in the history of the game. After that, it has not exactly been downhill all the way – this would be unfair – but, rather, that the fixture has fulfilled its historic function: the more so if the team are to be a sort of United Nations rather than the Lions under another name.

One uncapped player used to be included in the side. In the days when international matches were fewer, and substitutes not allowed, this had a certain justification. There were several players about the place who should have been capped by their country but, for one reason or another, had been denied the honour. The Barbarians gave the opportunity to partially rectify such omissions. Today, the position is the other way around. You are surprised to learn that someone has 10 caps. On closer examination it turns out that nine of them were gained as a substitute.

My own proposal is simple: that the Lions should take over from the Barbarians. This is not, I confess, original. Several other people have made the same suggestion. It was, they said, ridiculous that a side should be formed every four years or so, only to be disbanded after a few months. But a semi-permanent Lions side would have got in the way of the Barbarians.

Today the objection is different. It derives from professionalism, and comes from the national and club coaches and from the club owners. Why, they say – they have been saying it, with a certain amount of plausibility, ever since Graham Henry's Australian adventure – should we sacrifice the skills, the health and the fitness of our lads to an outfit over which we have no control?

I do not propose to try to answer this question comprehensively now: merely to observe that it ought not to have been beyond human ingenuity to assemble a Lions team to meet the Australians. This is simply an appeal for a more rational structure. It can be made equally well of the mini-international season we have just been witnessing.

England, everyone now agrees, may be the best side in the world. Be it so, as the barristers say. They certainly deserved to beat South Africa. Even if Dan Luger had not scored his interception try, and the South Africans had seen their earlier pushover effort both allowed and converted, England would still have won 24-16.

France also defeated South Africa and Australia, though we did not hear so much about that. But neither country played New Zealand, who beat Ireland and Scotland. There may be those who, in these days of perpetual competitions and cups, welcome the haphazard nature of the international fixture list that has just gone by. Indeed, I read of some of the matches as "friendlies'' – as if, in the circumstances, they could be anything else.

If all three of the principal sides of the Southern Hemisphere were going to be floating about Europe, surely there was a case for trying to ensure that, at least, New Zealand played England and France?

Comprehensive coverage of the five European countries (for there is no reason why Italy should be a punchbag) against the Southern Hemisphere would have produced 15 matches. This is too many. If only two of the Southern Hemisphere sides had toured, there would have been 10, which could have been fitted into just over a month.

My own Britain and Ireland side, by the way, would be: Robinson (England); Hickie (Ireland), O'Driscoll (Ireland), Harris (Wales), Luger (England); Wilkinson (England), Howley (Wales); Smith (Scotland), Wood (Ireland), Vickery (England), Johnson (England, capt), Grewcock (England), Hill (England), S Quinnell (Wales), Wallace (Ireland).

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