'I am in awe of the B&I Lions'
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The British and Irish Lions have found an unlikely ally in Bernard Laporte, with the Frenchman saying it is vital their “legend lives on”.
France have had little to do with the combined side apart from a 1989 match in Paris to celebrate the bicentenary of the French Revolution which the Lions, following their successful tour of Australia, won 29-27.
The Lions, however, are mainly concerned with travelling every four years to one of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as part of a 12-year cycle involving rugby union’s three southern hemisphere giants.
But World Rugby vice-chairman Laporte, a former France coach, said he was “in awe of the Lions”.
*Article continues below…
The Lions tour of South Africa in July and August is still set to go ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic.
But a further shadow was cast last week when Lions coach Warren Gatland warned a dispute over player release with Premiership clubs means stars at England’s top-flight teams, as well as those at second-tier Saracens, could miss out on being selected for the three-Test series against the world champion Springboks.
Gatland wants as much time with his squad as possible given they only have eight matches in all in South Africa, compared to the 10 four years ago in his native New Zealand when he guided the Lions to a 1-1 series draw with the All Blacks.
He accepts he may not have a full squad for a warm-up match against Japan at Murrayfield on June 26 — the same day as the Premiership final.
Yet players at Premiership clubs not involved in the final could be unavailable for the Edinburgh match, as it is scheduled outside global governing body World Rugby’s window for international games.
There have long been fears the increasing demands of club and regular Test rugby in the professional era are slowly squeezing the life out of the Lions, whose history dates back to the 19th Century – when rugby union was still an amateur game.
But Laporte, speaking as World Rugby launched a four-year strategic plan until 2025, said Wednesday: “For me, I am in awe of the Lions. Yes we need this, it’s a myth, the legend needs to live on.
“France is not there, so I can say it very objectively, but sincerely it’s extraordinary to watch. I repeat myself, it’s a living part of our sport.”
*Article continues below…
World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont was equally enthusiastic, although his support was less surprising given the England great is a former Lions captain and manager.
“It’s certainly dear to my heart,” said Beaumont as he looked ahead to the 2025 Lions tour of Australia.
“We will ensure as World Rugby that it remains a brand that is important to the global rugby family.
“It’s the last of the touring teams and is unique in the way that four countries come together and go on tour.”
There are those who argue the Lions have lost out in the complex negotiations over rugby’s fixture list by being represented by their four constituent countries – England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales – rather than having an independent voice.
But World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin, who said the Lions would be involved in calendar talks for “2025, 2029 and beyond”, insisted: “They will absolutely be at the table, not just represented by their constituents or the [national] unions, but directly at the table and part of those discussions and planning.”