Lions tour is ultimate test of pride for Woodward

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The Independent Online

When Mike Catt propelled an oval-shaped ball into the Sydney night sky and ran down the curtain on England's successful World Cup campaign, two things were immediately obvious: that Clive Woodward would be given a knighthood, and that he would be asked to coach the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand next summer. Had Buckingham Palace resisted the inevitable, Britain would now be a republic. Had the Lions' hierarchy flown in the face of logic, they would have been sent to the stocks.

Yesterday, the Lions confirmed - as though confirmation were needed - that Woodward had indeed been appointed, with his old Grand Slam mucker Bill Beaumont as manager. As he is every bit as obsessed with his own English- ness as he is with the game of rugby union, it is difficult to work out which public honour means most to him.

But when he ponders the point, Woodward may well come down on the side of his sport. Knighthoods are not unusual in the field of athletic endeavour; the Lions job, on the other hand, has never before been cracked by a member of the red-rose army.

Roger Uttley, Dick Best and Andy Robinson have all performed the assistant coach's role since 1989, but Woodward is the first Englishman to run the show. This has long been a source of embarrassment to England, for every other home union has thrown up at least two head coaches: the Welsh in Carwyn James and John Dawes, the Scots in Jim Telfer and Ian McGeechan, the Irish in Syd Millar and Noel Murphy. The Lions even turned to a New Zealander, Graham Henry, before venturing down the red-rose route.

Henry's association with the 2001 vintage in Australia was not a happy one - Woodward, flabbergasted by the Lions' decision even to consider a foreigner for the job, predicted as much before the tour - and the fact that the two men will be in direct opposition next year is one very good reason to book tickets for the three-Test series without further ado. Henry was appointed the All Blacks' coach after the World Cup, and by way of a prelude to the 2005 confrontation, he will take on Woodward's England in Dunedin and Auckland this summer.

Woodward is a stickler for running things his way, and his choice as team manager, as opposed to tour manager, has already been accepted. Louise Ramsay, a member of England's back-room staff for several years, will begin her administrative and logistical tasks immediately, leaving the coach to concentrate his thoughts on the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. Further appointments will be confirmed in April, and it will be surprising indeed if at least three of Woodward's senior lieutenants are not included on the roster.

Yet the Lions must balance the urgent desire to win a series in New Zealand for the first time since 1971 against the danger of stacking the party with English players, coaches, conditioning specialists and administrators. The Lions concept is weaker now than at any time since the start of the professional era - their draft 10-match itinerary, short in length and much poorer than it might be in terms of the quality of the provincial fixtures, is the inevitable consequence of the strength of domestic and European club competitions. If the Test side turns out to be England by another name, hard questions will be asked.

Still, Woodward versus Henry has a certain ring to it. And for Sir Clive, proud owner of a Grand Slam and a World Cup, a Lions victory would complete the holy trinity.