Put your shirt on Johnson touring Australia in 2001

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The Independent Online

At this stage of the international championship, more tries have been scored than for some time. They are not, by and large, soft tries, though tries which would have been called commendable a few seasons ago are now put down to defensive lapses because of the increasing importance of the tackle.

And they are being scored by threequarters; Ben Cohen, Austin Healey, Shane Williams, Brian O'Driscoll. On current form these four players must be virtual certainties for the Lions tour party of Australia in 2001. But, of course, it is much too early to start picking Lions parties for next year. The present season is not over yet. There is another one to come. And these days players can fall by the wayside, whether through injury, loss of form or, frequently, both (for the one reacts with the other), as rapidly as if they were delinquent cabinet ministers. The difference is that politicians come back, having paid their debt to society, whereas the players stay out. Tick-tock goes the clock, and others emerge to take their place.

Only four months ago, for example, Dan Luger was written about as the best wing in Europe. This claim seemed to me to do less than justice to the talents of Christophe Dominici, not to mention the troubled Emile Ntamack. Even so, it was a plausible claim to make.

And where is poor Luger now? He has been injured. All the talk is of Cohen and, most of all, Healey. Earlier David Rees had suffered a similar fate, as he suffers it still. And whatever happened to the wing who was supposed to be Rees's replacement, Steve Hanley? He has turned out for England A but the heir-apparent is Liam Botham.

Despite all this, I still venture a few predictions for Australia 2001; such as that the outside-half position will be contested by England's Jonny Wilkinson and Wales' Stephen Jones, that Martin Johnson will be in the side and that the only Welsh forward to get into the Test XV will be Peter Rogers at loose-head prop.

There are, however, matters that can and should be resolved at an earlier stage. One concerns the amount of support the side can expect from the home unions and, not least, from the principal clubs. I fear for the future of the Lions because I have observed the decline of the Barbarians.

The Swansea v Barbarians match used to be one of the high spots of the rugby calendar. The BaaBaas would field a side of Lions strength. Sometimes they would win, sometimes it would be Swansea; if it was the latter, they would be almost as jubilant as if they had beaten a touring side from the southern hemisphere. The fixture has now disappeared.

My impression is that the Barbarians were no longer the force they used to be well before the onset of professionalism. As they were formed - and enjoyed a continuing existence - precisely to advance the cause of amateurism in rugby, it is difficult to see what further function they now fulfil. The Lions are not in the same position. They represent the British Isles or, as some pedants would have it, the British and Irish Isles. They nevertheless originated in the era of amateurism.

So far the clubs have, despite the commercial character of some of their new owners, behaved reasonably well to the national unions. While some football clubs are accused of putting club before country and refusing to release players - a criticism that has been levelled at Manchester United over Ryan Giggs - Northampton would never withhold Allan Bateman. The clubs may turn out to be less indulgent to the Lions, because a lengthy absence is required of the players. I only hope not.

The other matter concerns the qualifications of players. I see, by the way, that Shane Howarth is still claiming a Welsh qualification, but through what genealogists call the bend sinister. He is in exalted company. A good proportion of the upper aristocracy owe their titles to the sexual exuberance of Charles II.

Matt Cardey, his successor, is a quarter legitimate Welsh. But I still do not regard him as a proper Welshman as I do Rogers, whose father was born in Trimsaram near Llanelli. Nor, whatever their paper qualifications may be, do I look on Glen Metcalfe, Shaun Longstaff, John and Martin Leslie and Gordon Simpson as Scottish. I have my doubts about David Hilton, Budge Pountney and Peter Walton as well.

The last three could perfectly well play for the Lions. They are English for most purposes except rugby. The Scottish New Zealanders are in a different position. Their strongest card is, I suppose, that Mike Catt, a South African, played for the Lions against South Africa in 1997 - and no one thought it in the least bit odd.