Can sport’s greatest tour continue for another 100 years? Rugby World delivers a manifesto to ensure their survival (with a little help from three legendary Lions)…
What next for the British & Irish Lions?
What does it mean to play for the British & Irish Lions? It’s a question that is asked a lot and one that can be hard for players to answer, to articulate the feeling of being part of the legendary touring side.
As Kyle Sinckler says: “It’s like me describing to you what a food tastes like, but you have never tasted the food. Or what a colour looks like and you have never seen the colour. It’s hard to find words in the English language to describe how special it is to put on that jersey. It is the pinnacle.”
It’s also unique – four traditional rivals coming together to travel to the other side of the world and take on the best of the southern hemisphere. Willie John McBride, that most famous of Lions, sums it up perfectly: “It’s one of the most remarkable concepts in sport.”
But can that concept survive another 133 years? The hope is overwhelmingly yes, especially amongst players and fans, but the reality is that the legacy of the Lions has already been eroded in certain ways and support for the tours is not unwavering across the board. Issues around player release and preparation time have added to the complexities.
“I’m very passionate about the Lions, but my concern is that not everyone is aligned with the Lions now,” says four-time tourist Brian O’Driscoll. “The players, past and present, are the biggest advocates for the Lions; they’re the ones who need to continue driving it to make sure it’s retained.”
We take a look at the problems the Lions face and propose solutions.
What next for the British & Irish Lions?
There are four years between modern Lions tours but it always seems that issues are still being ironed out just weeks before, particularly when it comes to player release. It wasn’t until the end of April, ten days before the squad announcement, that Premiership Rugby agreed to allow players to link up with the Lions once their club season had concluded.
And going forward the English clubs’ governing body have said they “will not release players until after the Premiership final”. Had that been the case this year, Warren Gatland wouldn’t have had enough players in camp to select a 23-man squad to face Japan!
Admittedly, scheduling that warm-up fixture on the same day as the English final was hardly in the spirit of collaboration, but the point remains that these discussions should be happening now ahead of Australia 2025 to avoid a similar scenario in four years’ time.
McBride believes the problem is that the RFU has no real authority over the clubs, unlike the Irish, Scottish and Welsh unions. He says: “I’m against individual people owning rugby clubs; it’s wrong. The IRFU have got it right; they own the players. The unions should control what players do, then they can set the itinerary in whatever fashion they want.
“We and Scotland are pretty good, Wales have got hold of it pretty well; the Premiership is the big problem. The RFU was too slow and the clubs got way ahead of them.”
It’s not a new issue – club v country rows have dominated the professional landscape – but it does need to be addressed. In the past, the Lions had the advantage of preparation time because they were together for so long on the trips and could train regularly before facing amateur opposition who had come together only a couple of days earlier, but the reverse is true in the pro era. Now it’s opponents who have been together for long periods and the Lions who have limited time to gel.
The squad should be given a minimum of two weeks together before the first game – and that’s the whole squad, not players arriving in dribs and drabs depending when club commitments finish. End the domestic season, then get the Lions players together.
In 1997, the squad didn’t even do any rugby training in their first week together, it was all team building. Nowadays there is so little time, it’s straight into the training – often without the full complement of players.
The 2021 Lions were missing a dozen of their number for the first week’s training in Jersey, another eight players joined for the second week while Exeter’s contingent didn’t arrive until the day of departure. That puts the Lions on the back foot.
“The Lions is something very special and personally I’d give it precedence,” says two-time skipper Martin Johnson. “Guys miss the start of tours and are rushed out… I don’t like that, it’s not ideal. These guys sometimes have one chance in their career, so they should be able to do it properly, to give themselves the best chance.
“The Lions winning a series is a rare thing, we know all the reasons why, so people need to have the best interests of British rugby for that year, for the Lions to take precedence for timing. The Lions tour is special enough for everyone to give them the best chance.”
The clubs are right to want their assets playing for them as often as possible, but slight tweaks to the season once every four years are surely doable. After all, not only are they compensated by the Lions financially but having players on the tour can increase the exposure of the clubs and attract new fans.
The Pro14 moved its final to give the Lions more preparation time and you’d expect the rebranded United Rugby Championship to do the same. The Premiership recently announced that the 2022-23 season will end in May rather than June to allow England more preparation time for the World Cup, so they can be flexible when they want to be (no doubt the RFU Council agreeing to the expansion of the league and a pause on relegation helped).
Scheduling one or two midweek games – the Premiership has lost the moral high ground on that player welfare argument since cramming half the 2019-20 season into less than three months due to Covid – should enable that to be accommodated.
Plus, last season highlighted how the June window can work against rugby, with two of the greatest matches in Premiership history on successive weekends but overshadowed by other sports. So a late May/early June final could be beneficial all round.
A little movement on the other side of the equator can help too. The southern hemisphere sides are generally good at tweaking their seasons and starting the tour a week later could help.
Andy Marinos, who was involved in organising the 2009 tour in South Africa and is now preparing for 2025 as Rugby Australia CEO, says: “From a southern hemisphere perspective, wherever is host in Lions year we’ve started Super Rugby earlier so players from a provincial perspective are free to play in tour matches without having a Super Rugby game. We’ll continue to do what we can to get maximum benefit out of the tour.
“The biggest thing we need to manage is the country v club dilemma, which is really prevalent in the northern hemisphere. It’s planning around every four years so the season is adapted to fulfil those obligations. It’s about embodying the values of the game that we so often want to espouse.”
Marinos believes the Lions “are very much part of the conversation” when it comes to World Rugby meetings on scheduling, but the Lions – and the clubs – need a seat at the table when it comes to those discussions. And that’s an independent Lions representative, not the unions who are also concerned with the interests of their national teams.
The recent expedition to South Africa was the shortest-ever tour, with just the eight matches scheduled, including only two midweek fixtures. It’s a far cry from the epic early trips or even those in the Seventies. McBride says: “The shortest tour I went on was three months – a tremendous experience. It’s nothing like that now. We would never ever have played at home either, like the Japan game. It’s alien to anything I believed in.
“What we want to see is a proper Lions tour, more games to make it worthwhile – 12, 13, 14 games.”
Johnson has seen how Lions tours have changed from the amateur to pro era having first toured in 1993 before captaining them in 1997 and 2001. He recognises that the months-long “adventures” that have gone down in folklore will never return – there simply isn’t the space in the calendar – but he also rues the absence of more midweek fixtures, of travelling a country.
He recalls making his debut against Taranaki in 1993 and says: “Having the Lions in town for three days was massive for New Plymouth, and they gave us a heck of a game. That would have been the biggest game of some players’ lives and that’s what touring is about. Getting to play in those smaller towns, particularly in New Zealand and South Africa… It’s a pity some of that has gone. I miss the romanticism of that.”
In Australia, the next tour is already a popular conversation topic, with Marinos being asked about which regional sides will get to play the Lions, where Tests will be staged… There’s always a focus on the importance of the Lions to those in Britain and Ireland, but these tours are hugely significant to the host nation too.
There is the obvious financial impact, both on the union’s coffers as well as the country as a whole in terms of tourism, but the rarity of these tours – once every 12 years – is also a huge factor. The prospect of playing the Lions in 2025 is keeping players in Australia.
“The Lions is about the tradition that goes with it,” says Marinos. “The advent of professionalism has been so good in so many ways, it’s upped the level and developed the game. But the old days of six- or seven-week tours are missed. The Lions tour has gone from ten games down to eight. The romantic in me would say the longer the better, but it’s the realities of wear and tear on players.”
Longer tours give the Lions more time to click, on and off the field. O’Driscoll says: “Those first three or four weeks are about building bonds, getting to know one another, becoming Lions and leaving your nationality at the door. “Wanting to put yourself out for an adversary is a strange and unique thing, to really feel the connection.
“Even though we’re 25 years into professionalism, the Lions has the nature of a tour of yesteryear and that’s something we need to hold on to, the core values of rugby.”
Extra time allows the Lions to work on their defensive system, set-piece and attack plays too. From his first tour in 1993 to his last in 2001, Johnson noticed how the Lions went from very little defence work to that taking up a quarter of training time. And matches then allow you to put those plans into practice so there is a clear structure come the Tests.
Johnson points to the midweek games in terms of building momentum. Plus, they give players opportunities to stake their claim for a Test jersey. Everyone needs to feel able to put themselves into the mix, otherwise disillusionment and divides can develop in the group.
A minimum of ten games, around the host country, seems like the right number to develop cohesion, provide players with chances to put their hand up for the Tests and have that ‘tour’ feel.
In the amateur era, players would return from months away and be back at their desks or at the front of their classroom within a few days. Even in 1997, the first professional tour, the strains on tourists’ bodies were not considered as much as they are now, with the phrase ‘player welfare’ yet to be so prevalent.
“I probably played 45 games in 1997,” recalls Johnson. “It was the first professional year and you just played. And you wouldn’t come off, so it was 80 minutes every week. That’s just the way it was. It’s different now, with the pressure on players and the awareness of the pressure on players.
“And those trips are gruelling mentally. The Lions are tough trips, relentless, you’re there to be shot at every game.”
The physical and mental demands on players mean they now get a break after any season. The structure the RPA agreed with the Premiership includes a mandatory five-week rest period, but only two of those weeks are absolute rest with the other three ‘active rest’, meaning players should be completing conditioning programmes. Four weeks’ complete rest after a Lions tour would surely be better in player welfare terms.
A women’s team has been mooted for the past few years and the Lions are currently undertaking a feasibility study with the home unions on the idea. It would be a brilliant addition to the women’s Test calendar but it shouldn’t simply mirror the men’s tours.
For a start, Australia and South Africa are currently unable to provide enough meaningful fixtures for a full tour. France would be the perfect first destination given the strength of the club game there and the appetite for women’s rugby amongst supporters. New Zealand is another good option, and perhaps a combined USA-Canada tour.
Then players’ circumstances have to be considered. While the majority of England players are on professional contracts, the same is not true for those from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, so shorter tours might be better to minimise the implications – financial, career progression, etc – in taking a long period of time off work.
On the plus side, having an aligned global season in the women’s game should make it easier to schedule. The new WXV structure launches in 2023. That sees countries play regional competitions in the first half of the year to qualify for one of three global tiers, with those matches in September-October.
So a tour in July-August in between World Cups, say 2027 or 2031 to start with, might work well. The key is making sure a Lions women’s team is of benefit for the tourists and the host nation, rather than forming one for the sake of it.
Special, unique, rare, mystical… Such words litter conversations about the Lions, and that is why we’re all so passionate about them. Yet to ensure the famous team are still touring in the next century, there must be compromise and conversation.
Maybe a little innovation too – how about the squad announcement drawing from the NFL Draft to become more of a spectacle? That would attract a new audience.
The fans and the players are already on the same page. Now it’s over to the game’s administrators.
What next for the British & Irish Lions? Rugby World’s Manifesto
- The British & Irish Lions to have a minimum of two weeks’ preparation before their first match
- The entire Lions squad to convene at the same time
- Club seasons in both Europe and the tour destination to be altered in Lions years to accommodate the above requirements
- Tours to consist of at least ten matches
- Players to get a mandatory four-week break from all rugby at end of the tour
- The Lions to have their own, independent representative at World Rugby meetings to discuss global season structure
- A women’s team to be launched, with tours to France, New Zealand and North America first on the agenda and to take place in men’s World Cup years
What do you think the future holds for the Lions? Do you think changes are needed? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch via social media to let us know your thoughts.
This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s August 2021 edition.
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