James Lawton: McGeechan claims the high ground as storm threatens to envelop Lions

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The Independent Online

When the Lions coach Ian McGeechan was a slip of a centre back in Port Elizabeth in 1974 he was surely forgiven a slight catch of his breath when the infamous – sorry, big man in the corner with the cauliflower ears, that should of course be glorious – instruction 99 came down.

The reflection was inevitable this week when McGeechan, seeking to reproduce his coaching success here 12 years ago, so commendably chose to counter unscrupulous South African might with the fastest, most imaginative team he could put together for today's opening Test.

It was rather different 35 years ago when the legendary Lions captain and lock forward Willie John McBride decided that in those days of home referees and the clearest possible indication that the Springboks were hell-bent on almost every form of skulduggery known to large and desperate men his players had to take pre-emptive action.

Hence 99, an abbreviated form of the emergency telephone number. If a man wearing a red shirt made the call each one of his team-mates, even tiddlers like the Yorkshire-reared Scotsman McGeechan, knew precisely what they had to do. They had to clobber the nearest Springbok.

It might not have been the subtlest ploy in the history of international sport but it was not without logic. A referee was not likely to send off an entire team, especially in a stadium filled to the rafters with blood-lusting spectators, and if you were going to be picked off one by one, without much official interference, why not at the very least confuse the issue? Naturally, some of the Lions – who in their defence had already suffered considerable provocation in their first two winning Test performances and were hardly reassured when the South Africans picked a raw-boned number eight at scrum half – accepted orders with greater enthusiasm than others. One of the more enthusiastic, ironically a surgeon by professional vocation, was the great Welsh full back JPR Williams, who when the first call came was somewhat distressed to find himself a substantial sprint away from his nearest opponent. However, he covered the ground briskly enough to make his contribution to the master plan.

After being elected to the Royal College of Surgeons, JPR reflected that the first part of his life was spent breaking bones, the second putting them together again.

He was last encountered in the stand at Christchurch four years ago when the Lions were in the first stage of one of their feeblest ever attempts to subdue the All Blacks on their own terrain. His remarks were not guaranteed to soothe the Lions management or their spin doctor, Alastair Campbell.

The style McGeechan displayed in his selection for today's match in Durban, after Tuesday's brutal battering by the Southern Kings in, appropriately enough, Port Elizabeth, was impressive in several ways.

Firstly, it was faithful to the well tested strategy that only mugs try to win on the terms selected by their opponents. Secondly, it reflected the instincts of a modern, thinking rugby man steeped, as a player and a coach, in Lions tradition who knows that a return to atavism is not exactly a sure-fire route to the game's optimum professional future.

Rugby already provides enough physical attrition for the liking of those who invest in the game's best talent and a lengthening injury list is probably not the best way to help the already problematic prospects of the Lions as an enduring institution of the British and Irish game.

Certainly the remarks of the Southern Kings coach Alan Solomons carried more than a hint of doomsday after a match which brought injuries to fly-half James Hook and prop Euan Murray and the charge from the not notably squeamish Ronan O'Gara that the Port Elizabeth collision had brought more cheap shots in 80 minutes than the rest of the tour put together.

Solomons said: "Yes, one or two late tackles occurred. But there were a few high hits from the Lions, who are hardly angels. They made it very clear they are looking for physical confrontation in South Africa and we didn't want to disappoint them in any way. We were certainly determined not to give them an easy ride and for a side that only came together six days ago and played 20 minutes of the match with 14 men, we gave them a hell of a contest."

That was one way of putting it. The way of rugby recidivism, that is.

It carried us to that old ground where many rugby aficionados argue the game must still be played, that visceral area where more or less anything goes. Where, some of us are told as though we inhabit a distant planet with other irredeemable dreamers, men have to be tested. Or, if you like, a young player of Hook's crowd-pleasing distinction is escorted out of the action not sure whether he is in Port Elizabeth or Pontardawe.

It is to McGeechan's credit that he did not rise to the provocations of the Southern Kings and their macho coach. He has picked a team which he said will attempt to play the game at its best, fast and geared to make opportunities for such talent as Brian O'Driscoll, Tommy Bowe, Jamie Roberts and Ugo Monye. Talent, this is, which is rather more engaging than the old trench warfare. Of course there will always be a substantial degree of physicality, you cannot have fire without friction, but the Lions tour, now it is getting to the serious business, was in need of a statement of substance about where the priorities should lie.

In a few hours time, of course, such lofty ambition may well be in ruins. We may lack only the cry of 99, and it is also true that the world champions South Africa will almost certainly win. The bookmakers are massively sure of this, listing them at 4-11.

For the moment at least, though, the Lions have won a little high ground. It is something decently hopeful to carry into the storm.

F1 breakaway must cut ties with arrogant complacency

Former world champion Fernando Alonso is less than cast down by the impending demise of Formula One. "Yes, it is probably over," he said yesterday, "but what will come in its place is something the people want – the big teams with big budgets and the best drivers."

Maybe, maybe not, but what is certain is if a new championship does rise out of the current chaos it has a perfect set of rules saying what not to do.

Do not suffer from overweening arrogance that you have a formula that someone will always want.

Do not imperil an institution with the tradition of Silverstone because one man of inordinate power and wealth and influence has taken against the place.

Do not forget that you have a sport that is capable of creating much passion among millions of supporters, even when levels of competition are set not by the drivers but the budget power of the engineers.

Most of all, do not stew smugly in your own fat. Formula One had no reason to do that after the shocking failure of governance which two years ago saw massive industrial espionage go, in real terms, relatively unpunished and allowed the two drivers who had benefited most to still compete for the world championship. All that has happened since has merely confirmed a serious case of moral bankruptcy. Formula One cannot exist as it is. Nor will the replacement if it fails to make a whole new sport.

Young England show Premier League the value of opportunity

Yes, thank you, I know why a mere 35 per cent of home-bred players regularly perform in the Premier League. It is because we just do not produce enough good young players to grace the league of all leagues by more than a sprinkling.

It is why only two Englishmen performed in one of the season's showpieces between Liverpool and Arsenal, a match packed with Frenchmen and Spaniards. It was described as a triumph for our game.

The trouble is that Premier League clubs can only present the very best of available talent. If there are just not enough good Englishmen to make more than a nominal presence in the top flight, what can be done?

A little nurturing perhaps, especially in the wake of England Under-21's thrashing of Spain, Fifa's No 1 ranked nation. How could that have happened against the likely successors to Iniesta and Xavi, Villa and Silva? It might have something to with the asset that has been wiped from the lives of most promising young Englishmen – the one called opportunity.

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