Shrinking schedule is blow to Lions traditionalists

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The Independent Online

Rather like nostalgia, the grand old game is not what it used to be. France cannot win in Paris, where they used to be invincible; England cannot stop running in tries, a mode of scoring they once found entirely beyond them; and Wales are mourning the departure of a Geordie fitness coach, having spent most of their rugby history actively despising anyone from the wrong side of the Severn Bridge. These are changing times for the Lions, too. Next summer's visit to Australia will not be a tour in the traditional sense, but the union equivalent of a long weekend.

Rather like nostalgia, the grand old game is not what it used to be. France cannot win in Paris, where they used to be invincible; England cannot stop running in tries, a mode of scoring they once found entirely beyond them; and Wales are mourning the departure of a Geordie fitness coach, having spent most of their rugby history actively despising anyone from the wrong side of the Severn Bridge. These are changing times for the Lions, too. Next summer's visit to Australia will not be a tour in the traditional sense, but the union equivalent of a long weekend.

The world champions intend to offer Donal Lenihan, the Lions manager, a 10-match itinerary, which would amount to the shortest schedule undertaken by a British Isles party in more than a century of 15-man conflict on foreign fields. When RL Seddon of Swinton led the 1888 side on their inaugural trip to Australia and New Zealand, there were 35 games. As recently as 1966, Mike Campbell-Lamerton's team played a similar number. Even when the Lions last visited Wallaby land in 1989, there were a dozen fixtures.

Australian rugby, dominated for so long by Queensland and New South Wales, can now boast a third provincial side in ACT; indeed, there will be a fourth by the time the Lions pitch up, assuming the Wallaby hierarchy is successful in negotiating an additional Super 12 place. "We want to inject new impetus into the game here by establishing a top team in either Perth or Melbourne," confirmed Strath Gordon, the Australian Rugby Union communications chief.

Yet the proposed schedule is two matches light on the '89 version: three Tests, one of which will be played in Melbourne, plus meetings with the Super 12 sides, an Australian second-string and, probably, two up-country games in the sheep-dip region of New South Wales and the cork hat area of Queensland. The tourists will be away for considerably less than two months - a development that will delight the club movement but exasperate those traditionalists who venerate Lions tours as the one remaining vestige of rugby's golden age.

It will be fascinating to see how many southern hemisphere players re-cross the equator as part of next year's squad. At the start of the Six Nations campaign, Shane Howarth of Wales and the Leslie brothers of Scotland would have fancied their chances, and with good reason. However, Howarth's Test career is now threatened by the eligibility scandal raging in Red Dragon country, while John Leslie, the Scottish captain from Dunedin, is struggling for form and confidence. By the same yardstick, the likelihood of Graham Henry, another New Zealander, coaching the Lions is not so much slim as anorexic.

Henry flatly refused to discuss the eligibility scandal yesterday, except to admit that the last few days had "not been easy". But he spiked the popular theory that he was looking for an early flight out of the country by insisting that he would fulfil his contract and coach the national side through to the 2003 World Cup. "I've thought about the situation pretty deeply, but it's made me more determined to do the job," he said. "Over here, they build people up so much it's embarrassing. But it's a matter of making the most of things and doing my best."

The coach also mounted a fierce defence of Steve Black, the conditioning specialist who resigned on Sunday after public criticism of the fitness of a number of players. "Steve is different to me, a lot more emotional, and he feels that everything he stands for professionally has been brought into question," Henry said. "I'm not surprised by his decision. The criticism has been totally unwarranted."

Bernard Laporte, the similarly beleaguered French coach, warned that he would go the same way as Black unless the domestic structure was improved. The Tricolores were without 10 leading players for their match with Ireland at the weekend - a fifth consecutive home defeat - and Laporte said: "The calendar is useless. We are not progressing towards excellence and we need radical change. If it doesn't happen inside a year, then it's goodbye."

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