The British & Irish Lions head to New Zealand next summer but such tours in an overcrowded season highlight issues like player welfare
Everyone loves the British & Irish Lions. We’ve all experienced the emotional tug of that 1997 South Africa tour video. Or heard tales told by our parents about the greatest Lions team ever to tour New Zealand in 1971, tales of Gareth and Barry and Carwyn; of ‘The Invincibles’ who came back triumphant from South Africa in 1974, led by the indomitable Willie John McBride.
The Lions were one of the beloved cornerstones of the amateur game, but their place in the ruthless world of professionalism is far less assured. Everybody keeps making the right noises, of course. We are constantly reminded how precious the Lions ‘brand’ is – and there is ample support in the cost of an official 18-day, three-Test tour to New Zealand priced at £6,000 and tickets for Test matches priced between £79 and £238.
In 2005, 20,000 fans travelled to New Zealand, injecting an estimated £65m into the local economy. New Zealand Rugby calculates that 2017 will be the only year in the next five in which they will make a profit, and they are on course to make a £4.7m loss in 2016 with increased investment in the domestic game.
And there is the rub. The Lions are a precious commodity, they are big business – but there is no effort made to reflect the importance of Lions tours in the administrative attitude to either a global rugby calendar or the player welfare issues that derive from it.
A large rump of international players will be involved in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 finals, which are due to be played on 27 May, only one week before the Lions’ first match in New Zealand on 3 June.
Toulon’s Leigh Halfpenny could also be affected. The Top 14 play-offs run until the third week of June, which could potentially rule Halfpenny out of the entire first month of the tour.
Tour matches trip over themselves after that initial encounter, with games against two Super Rugby franchises, the Blues and Crusaders on 7 and 10 June completing a very busy first week.
At a reasonable guess, 20-25 leading players could be absent from the Lions’ preparatory camp and potentially, the first two matches of the tour because of their involvement in the finals of domestic competitions.
This situation is very similar to England’s 2014 tour to New Zealand, where I was involved in the preparation and planning. England flew out missing 14 players who were involved in the Premiership final between Saracens and Northampton. Where we’d had a settled side throughout that year’s Six Nations, only regular starters Mike Brown, Jonny May, Chris Robshaw, Joe Launchbury and David Wilson were available for the crucial first Test in New Zealand.
Although the makeshift XV played well at Eden Park and could easily have won the game, the selection process thereafter had already been reduced to a shambles, with a mixture of second and third stringers vying for playing time with an underprepared and mentally rundown group coming over late from the UK.
Despite these recurring problems with scheduling, neither the Six Nations committee nor the RFU are prepared to consider the restructuring towards a global season, which is so clearly necessary for a solution to be reached. As recently as 26 July, the RFU’s chief executive Ian Ritchie, ruled out any changes to the key items – the Six Nations or end-of-year tours by the southern hemisphere teams.
Outsiders like Bath owner Bruce Craig have offered a sensible answer with the global season divided into more manageable blocks, and they are supported by the outlook of new World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont. But the sensible view is likely to be opposed by sectional interests.
As things stand, the integration of North and South and club and country will continue to be an incoherent mishmash of fixture-splicing, and money will continue to be the main driver above player welfare. There is always a huge and long-lasting injury toll suffered by the players who go on Lions tours and return without a proper break and pre-season.
Moreover, the new generation of All Blacks will be utterly determined to send them home on the back of a beating as bad as that administered to the last Lions squad to visit New Zealand in 2005.
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