Professional era threatens future of Lions tours

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The Independent Online

A tour of New Zealand by the British and Irish Lions used to represent the Mount Olympus of the union game - Gareth and Barry, the Mighty Mouse, Pinetree Meads, the House of Pain and all that. Now, a mere eight years into the professional era, it has become "a nightmare issue" - a lacerating phrase used yesterday by the chief executive of Premier Rugby, Howard Thomas - that may easily lead to a breakdown in relations between the international authorities and England's élite clubs. There are bad days looming on the horizon.

The Lions are due to play a three-Test series against the All Blacks next year, and if the Premiership movement has its way, that will be about the sum of the serious rugby played on the trip. In Thomas' considered opinion, the tour should start and end in June - not so much an adventure as a walk round the block - and be organised with the specific intention of minimising disruption to the northern hemisphere season. What is more, he intends to put his case at a meeting with the Lions hierarchy scheduled for mid-February.

"I am a very strong supporter of Lions rugby, but I'm a bigger supporter of professional rugby," Thomas said during an England Rugby Ltd briefing at Twickenham. "The Lions tradition is based in the amateur era, while we are attempting to maintain a viable club game in England. The clubs are the biggest investors in the Lions, for the simple reason that they pay the players' salaries. When Lions tours are shown to be significantly disruptive - and that was plainly the case in 2001, when they went to Australia - it is entirely understandable that the Premiership clubs should look at their priorities.

"To my mind, a Lions victory in New Zealand would not compare with England winning the World Cup. It would be a fantastic event, certainly, but it wouldn't scratch the sides of what we have just witnessed in terms of public euphoria. What would happen if rugby union was granted the Olympic status the International Rugby Board seeks? We would have a year's disruption for the Olympics, a year's disruption for the World Cup and another year's disruption for the Lions. One clear year in four for the professional game here? That is a nonsense scenario. I would not go so far as to say there is no place for the Lions in the professional environment, but there are some stark realities that need addressing."

Next year's tour, on which Bill Beaumont and Sir Clive Woodward may well be reunited as manager and coach, is fraught with difficulties. The Rugby Football Union itself is not wholly sold on the Lions concept - "The Lions brand is undeniably a great one, but all these things need to be readdressed in the light of where we are now," said Paul Vaughan, the RFU's commercial director - and there is considerable concern about early drafts of the 2005 itinerary, which do not include games against the two most powerful New Zealand provinces, Auckland and Canterbury. As these would be the biggest financial drivers outside the Test matches, the anxiety in treasurers' circles is acute.

Thomas and his like-minded brethren have a point of sorts, especially when club rugby throws up an occasion on the scale of tonight's Heineken Cup match between Leicester and Stade Francais at Welford Road. Some 17,000 spectators will watch the Pool One decider - an audience significantly bigger than anything the Lions could expect for a match against Southland in Invercargill, for instance - and will be treated to the sight of a number of Test players fast-tracked back from injury for a winner-take-all contest.

Ben Kay and Ollie Smith, two England internationals, have been declared fit by the Midlanders, as have the brothers Tuilagi, Fereti and Henry. The Parisians, meanwhile, have included David Auradou, their world-class line-out specialist, and Agustin Pichot, the Argentinian World Cup captain, at lock and scrum-half respectively. Three years ago, the two clubs fought out a Heineken final of epic grandeur. This time, one of them must vacate the competition before the knock-out stage. Hang on to your hats.