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Jackson column: Lions eye 2021 tour warm-up in Cardiff

Lions Tour

The Lions will decide at a board meeting this week whether to transfer their next fixture from Twickenham to Cardiff rather than Edinburgh or Dublin for the 2021 Lions Tour.

As a profitable warm-up for their truncated tour of South Africa, the touring team had planned to book HQ for June 26 next year only to discover that Premiership Rugby had already nabbed it for their annual finale to the domestic season.

Sources have told The Rugby Paper that a switch to Cardiff will be considered for a match on the same day, not against an international opponent but the Barbarians as the centrepiece of their annual end-of-season schedule. Lions head coach Warren Gatland is understood to be in favour.

As for the venue, money, as always, matters and the Millennium Stadium’s greater capacity makes it a more rewarding venue than Murrayfield or The Aviva. Since their creation more than a century ago, the Lions have defied their own unwritten rule about never playing at home by doing so twice.

Cardiff staged them both, starting with a Lions against Rest of the World XV match at the Arms Park in 1985 as arranged following the cancellation of that summer’s tour in protest at the Republic’s apartheid regime.

It was not granted official Test status but the next one most certainly was, against Argentina in the Welsh capital in May 2005, on the eve of the hapless series against New Zealand. In retrospect, what happened that night in Cardiff rather set the tone.

The match, like the tour, was a calamity in itself. The International Rugby Board, as they were then, saw the unscheduled fixture as worthy of Test status, which it most certainly was not, given that the Argentinians had to make do without almost all their heavyweights employed by clubs in France.

Their non-release served only to emphasise the IRB’s folly in ensuring a further devaluation of Test match rugby. The match, squeezed into a Monday night because the Lions were flying out on the Wednesday, provided a depressing glimpse of what was to come.

The Lions got away with the bleakest of draws, and then only because Jonny Wilkinson, on his first Test appearance since winning the World Cup almost 18 months earlier, landed a penalty deep into stoppage time to level the match at 25-25.

The fixture left a sense of foreboding among the traditionalists brought up to believe that Lions’ Test matches were meant to be played south of the equator, not at home. In hindsight, it would probably never have been played.

The damage done at Cardiff 15 years ago may or may not be raised at the boardroom table this week but it ought to ensure that there is no repeat, that a Lions match against the Baa-baas is a better fit than the Lions against any of the home countries.

Having laboured long into the night to avoid losing to a Pumas team shored up by a host of reserves, it was hardly surprising that the Lions would lose the series 3-0, as Roy Keane said they would when the Lions found themselves in the same hotel as Manchester United, then preparing for another of their Cardiff FA Cup finals.

Not even Keane could have imagined that they would lose by such a demoralising margin. If he did, he kept it to himself but the Lions sensed they were on a hopeless mission after the rout of the first Test in Christchurch and Brian O’Driscoll’s immediate loss as the victim of a spear tackle.

Brian O'Driscoll - Lions Tour
Trials of 2005: Lions captain Brian O’Driscoll talks to the media prior to the first Test of the 2005 tour of New Zealand. Getty Images

His successor as captain, Gareth Thomas, tells one story, albeit against himself of how he pulled the players into a circle at the end of training on the eve of the Second Test. “I’ve just got two words to sum up our present situation,’’ he told them. Don’t f****** panic. Shit, that’s three, isn’t it….?’’

As he himself pointed out, they would then rapidly lose count of how many points the All Blacks scored the next day in Wellington. Another heavy beating in the third Test left England flanker Lewis Moody feeling “as if we were a pub team getting hammered”.

For all the hand-wringing over the collapse of that tour under Sir Clive Woodward, the Lions are still being squeezed from all angles. The fault lies not with the much-maligned English clubs but with the game as a whole and its insistence of clinging onto everything, whatever the price.

More than 30 years ago Syd Millar, an all-time great Lion as player and coach, told me: “The game has a choice to make: it can either have a World Cup every four years or a Lions tour every four years. It cannot have both. There isn’t room.’’

They still have both and the Five Nations as it was then except it’s up to Six. And two European club competitions and three major Leagues, one of which involves four matches a season in South Africa and Italy.

Football does all that as well but at least it did make a sacrifice along the way, dispensing long ago with the Home Championship.

PETER JACKSON

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