The B&I Lions are already in talks with the Four Home Unions about the possibility of launching a first tour for women. This is heady news for women’s rugby, coming hard on the heels of the introduction of the Barbarians female version.
Before we look at the prospects for this venture, first a glance at the men’s version that goes way back to 1888.
Tours take place every four years to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on rotation. The best players from the British Isles are selected by a committee representing each of those interests.
In the past squabbles have been caused by the final choices. ‘Why so many Welsh/English/ Scots/Irish?’ – delete as applicable.
But once on tour great friendships are formed which outlive the stay abroad. The players consider their selection as the pinnacle of their career.
The set-up for the women’s game will inevitably be different.
One thing is sure: a women’s Lions tour must run on different lines from the men. First, the relative strengths of the four home nations is much wider. Out of 23 Four, Five and Six Nations tournaments since 1996, Scotland and Wales have won once. a Home Championship in 1998. Between them they have garnered 14 wooden spoons.
In both those nations there are outstanding players who could confidently expect to be selected. The Irish too always have great players worthy of selection. But the overall balance would tend to favour the English squad, the only full-time professionals, more than is healthy for the good of women’s rugby in the British Isles as a whole.
Where would they tour? Of the three traditional destinations Australia and South Africa are highly unlikely. They rank 7th and 11th respectively. Both have only recently altered their policy by nurturing the 15s game after a period of wholesale devotion to 7s.
New Zealand are the obvious single-nation target. As with the men, any combined B&I side would have its work cut out to contain the Black Ferns and even provincial sides, and the tour could be sure of the warmest of welcomes. But it’s a long way from home, and the NZRFU has its hands full contemplating the first ever World Cup to be played in the southern hemisphere.
So eyes are directed westwards, towards Canada and the USA. It is felt that North America is the most fruitful territory to inspect.
At the moment, Canada is some way ahead in terms of development. Rob Cain is working very hard to bring his American charges up to the levels needed to compete with the best in the world. He achieved an important first target when the Eagles beat the Maple Leafs 20-18 in the recent Super Series. But you wonder what sort of competition the Eagles can present to a squad potentially even stronger than the Red Roses who put 95 points on them over the last two contests.
Then the big questions start piling up:
Who would the tourists play apart from the national sides? In the men’s game the Lions play a series of provincial teams who can all provide opposition strong enough to raise quivers of doubt. But no women’s club could hope to offer a worthwhile challenge to the visitors.
Who would come and watch? Both nations are quite vast, meaning that crowds big enough to create the desired atmosphere would be hard to assemble. We have only to look at the tiny crowds present during the Super Series to see the size of the problem. The big gate that assembled at Soldier Field Chicago to see the Black Ferns take on the Eagles last November was assured of a double-header.
So would a tour consist solely of a series of international tests? You could imagine the fixture-list involving either two or three tests against each country, played in turn across the continent. It is thoroughly heartening that players from both Canada and the USA come from the entire width of the nation.
Next: when could a tour take place?
The fixture-list is filling up: a World Cup every four years, interspersed with the Olympics. Most of the elite nations spread their best players across both the 15s and the 7s format; the intervals in between grow narrower. The comparative nearness of North America adds to its chances of hosting.
Summer is the most obvious gap, as recent Super Series have proved. The women’s playing year is not yet so demanding that players would feel overstretched if invited on a B&I tour. How much longer will that be the case?
Finances: the tour couldn’t hope to be self-funding. 35,000 supporters are alleged to have flown out to New Zealand to watch the latest men’s tour. But backing for the women’s version would be needed from other sources, that is, the four home unions. Not all of them are well-padded in that direction. Both USA Rugby and Rugby Canada display ‘Donations welcome’ on their websites. It’s time for a Paul Getty figure to support women’s rugby as he did women’s cricket.
If no such manna falls on the enterprise, the Lions may have to draw their horns in. How far are the proponents of the idea willing to go? Ben Calveley, the Lions’ Chief Executive, must be mindful of financial returns. If they prove to be insufficient, what other destinations are left? Only France. And France boasts the largest audiences and the strongest teams to be found in the northern hemisphere (outside the Tyrrells!).
Now a tour becomes far more possible – no need for overcoming jet-lag, plenty of opposition and gates to underline the advance of women’s rugby.
Let’s hope the discussions prove positive and speedy.