Lenihan leads Lions on shortbut sweet tour

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The Independent Online

Thirty-four years ago, Mike Campbell-Lamerton's pride of British and Irish Lions played eight games in Australia, including two Tests, before crossing the Tasman for a mind-boggling 25-match gallop around New Zealand.

Thirty-four years ago, Mike Campbell-Lamerton's pride of British and Irish Lions played eight games in Australia, including two Tests, before crossing the Tasman for a mind-boggling 25-match gallop around New Zealand.

Apparently fearful that the tourists might feel starved of rugby, the organisers also slipped in a couple of fixtures in Canada on the way back home. Next summer, the Lions will play 10 matches in Wallaby country without going anywhere else at all, apart from home to bed. And they say the game is getting harder by the season.

Ironically enough, the Lions hierarchy have spent rather longer chewing the fat over the 2001 itinerary than any of their predecessors. Donal Lenihan is making no apologies for taking his time, however. "People say it's a short tour, but it's also very intense," the manager said yesterday as final details of the match schedule were released. "There were a number of things to iron out: at one point, we were looking at playing a side as strong as Queensland in the second game of the tour, and meeting all three Super 12 provinces in the space of a week, which would not have been ideal.

"It's obvious to me that the age of the 20-odd match trek is long gone; when national teams tour these days, they play seven games maximum. All you have to do is look at the amount of rugby these people are taking on, what with professional club competitions and internationals and World Cups. Anyone who asks a player to consider anything longer than a 10-match tour at the end of the northern hemisphere season is asking too much."

Lenihan confirmed that the Lions would travel with 37 players and indicated that the captain would not be named ahead of the rest of the party. "The point of taking 37 is that we can rest an entire 15 between matches," he explained. "With seven substitutes now on the bench, any of whom could be on the field inside the first minute, 22 players are accounted for in each match. We have only six games to settle on our team for the first Test in Brisbane, so it will be imperative to give people sufficient recovery time."

The Lions will leave London for Perth on 2 June and play their opening fixture against Western Australia a week later. The first serious questions will be asked by John Eales and his Queensland Reds on 16 June, a fixture that signals a particularly demanding stretch with follow-up games against Australia A and the New South Wales Waratahs.

The only negatives are the positioning of the match with Australia's hottest Super 12 outfit, the ACT Brumbies, directly before the second Test in Melbourne - the Brumbies will have to do without a Wallaby contingent led by halfbacks George Gregan and Steve Larkham - and the fact that the said Melbourne Test may be played under cover. "To me, rugby is an outdoor sport," said Lenihan. "But the details of that game are still in the air."

Lenihan and his fellow selectors will begin sorting the wheat from the chaff when the Heineken Cup and European Shield tournaments start next month, but there is already a considerable amount of jostling for position in the domestic arena. For instance, John Leslie, the most constructive inside centre in Britain if not the fittest, has an opportunity to score some big points against one of his most obvious rivals, Mike Catt, when Newcastle take on Bath at the Recreation Ground this afternoon.

Newcastle know what it is to win amid the Georgian splendour - the Falcons were good winners on the banks of the Avon during their title-winning campaign of 1997-98 - and even though their brilliant young full-back and talk of the town, Michael Stephenson, is missing because of shoulder trouble, they will field a back division capable of giving the Bath glitterati something to ponder. Jamie Noon, another youngster with mentions in national dispatches, makes his first start of the season alongside Leslie, while Epi Taione again restricts Va'aiga Tuigamala to bench duty. Up front, Ross Beattie will be a key figure at No 8.

There should be fun and games at Sale, too, now that their match with Saracens has been given the go-ahead following the lifting of the fuel blockade. Vaughan Going, a member of New Zealand's most revered rugby clan, returns at full-back after a hamstring strain, and there are starts for Matt Moore, one of the members of England's "Tour from Hell" party in 1998, and Rob Applyard at right wing and openside flanker respectively. Sale have appointed Peter Deakin as chief executive, and if the most effective marketing man in the game does for the Sharks what he did for Saracens during his time at Watford, the tiny ground at Heywood Road will soon be rendered obsolete.

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