Baron's plan brands the Lions as 'an interference'

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Francis Baron, the embattled chief executive of the Rugby Football Union who has put himself in seriously bad odour with England's Premiership clubs, is also facing the wrath of the sport's powerful traditionalist wing as a result of a thinly veiled attack on the British and Irish Lions contained in a document currently circulating around the committee rooms of Twickenham. A draft strategic plan prepared by Baron and his managerial team describes the Lions as "an interference" and proposes a root-and-branch reappraisal of England's relationship with the most revered institution in the world game.

Francis Baron, the embattled chief executive of the Rugby Football Union who has put himself in seriously bad odour with England's Premiership clubs, is also facing the wrath of the sport's powerful traditionalist wing as a result of a thinly veiled attack on the British and Irish Lions contained in a document currently circulating around the committee rooms of Twickenham. A draft strategic plan prepared by Baron and his managerial team describes the Lions as "an interference" and proposes a root-and-branch reappraisal of England's relationship with the most revered institution in the world game.

Given that the Lions tour Australia this summer, the implicit - and not so implicit - criticisms in the report will alarm many of the more influential members of the RFU council, which meets to consider the paper tomorrow week.

Fran Cotton, the Club England chairman, and Bill Beaumont, who sits alongside Cotton on the union's management board and also represents the RFU at International Board level, are celebrated Lions of the past and will certainly react to any perceived attempt to dilute England's commitment to the team, which tours one of the big three southern hemisphere countries every four years.

The chief executive will insist that, in rugby's profit-driven professional era, a close examination of England's contribution to the Lions is not only legitimate but essential. The report points out that none of the four home unions benefit financially from Lions trips - Rupert Murdoch's long-term ownership of broadcasting rights south of the equator effectively ensures a minimal return for the travelling participants - and goes on to suggest that the RFU press for "substantial changes" to the commercial framework of future tours.

However, the report also says that Lions tours "interfere with the single-minded build-up and preparation necessary for an attempt to win the World Cup" and that Twickenham should ensure that such tours "do not disproportionately effect the England development process". These are dangerous waters. Two of the red rose coaching hierarchy, Andy Robinson and Phil Larder, have already been handed Lions roles in Wallaby country next summer, and it will be a major surprise if the tour party is less than 50 per-cent English. Would that be considered disproportionate? If so, what action might be taken?

Baron will need to live up to his reputation as a tough cookie to survive battles on so many fronts. Yesterday, he attended an RFU management board meeting called to discuss, among other things, the crisis in central funding for Premiership clubs. English First Division Rugby, the clubs' negotiating body, claim they are owed £600,000 apiece by Twickenham under the terms of an agreement hammered out last spring, and hold the chief executive primarily responsible for the parlous state of their bank accounts. In addition, the Celtic unions privately accuse him of blocking a securitisation plan proposed last December with the aim of raising some £250m against future revenues. On this last issue, Baron denies that any final decision has been taken by the RFU.

When the council convenes next Friday, the authors of the draft plan will have to defend a negative Lions stance in Lions year: a capital crime, in the eyes of those who see the touring side as the embodiment of everything that is good in rugby. Once upon a time, RFU get-togethers were a guaranteed cure for insomnia. The only guarantee this time is that copious amounts of blood will be spilled on the Twickenham shagpile.

Back in the real world, where people play the game rather than argue about it, Scotland have named both Scott Murray and Simon Taylor in a 31-man squad for the forthcoming internationals against Australia, Samoa and the United States.

Murray underwent knee surgery a fortnight ago, but the Saracens lock's recovery has been so swift that he may turn out in this weekend's big Heineken Cup tie with Cardiff.

The French, meanwhile, have omitted Marc Dal Maso, the experienced Pau hooker, from the squad preparing to face Australia in Paris on 4 November. The absence of Raphael Ibanez, who led the Tricolores in last year's World Cup, means that neither of the country's most respected No 2s are involved.

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