Wales win battle to host Lions warm-up game

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The Independent Online

There was a clear victory for Red Dragon rugby when it emerged that the 2005 British and Irish Lions would play a warm-up international against Argentina before leaving for their three-Test tour of New Zealand.

The last time Wales beat England, in 1999, the phrase "twin towers" still referred to Wembley Stadium rather than something more tragic. But there was a clear victory for Red Dragon rugby yesterday when it emerged that the 2005 British and Irish Lions would play a warm-up international against Argentina before leaving for their three-Test tour of New Zealand - and play it in Cardiff, rather than London.

Desperate to make the Millennium Stadium start paying for itself, the Welsh Rugby Union lobbied hard to secure the fixture, scheduled for 23 May. However, the match was also coveted by the Rugby Football Union, who considered Twickenham to be the more appropriate venue. At one point, the Scots were interested too - presumably on the grounds that it might be one of their few contributions to Lions affairs next year. The decision in favour of Cardiff is a significant feather in the cap of David Moffett, the WRU's embattled chief executive.

Moffett has been at the forefront of a political firestorm in Wales ever since he arrived in the country with a brief to restore some financial integrity to the sport. He railroaded the regional rugby concept past a thousand Doubting Thomases, and then dismantled one of those five regions, the impressive Celtic Warriors, to secure the four-team system he always wanted. Only yesterday, there were cliff-edge negotiations with Cardiff Blues, Llanelli Scarlets and Newport-Gwent Dragons over the so-called Participation Agreement, which governs the union's access to international players.

The Blues and Scarlets both settled, thereby joining the Neath-Swansea Ospreys on the side of the angels. The Dragons held out, though - a decision that earned them a public rebuke from Steve Lewis, the WRU's general manager, who reminded the Rodney Paraders that "stand-alone status was not up for discussion". Under the circumstances, the Lions' decision was a timely bonus.

A crowd of 70,000-plus is expected for the game, although its positioning in a ridiculously hectic fixture schedule can only be described as questionable. The Heineken Cup final, highly likely to feature a handful of influential Lions, will be played 24-hours before the warm-up match, and the tourists leave for Auckland two days after the Cardiff showpiece. If the entire party board the plane without a single pair of crutches in sight, it will be a miracle.

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