Source: RFU

A Women’s Lions Tour comes a Step closer

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Royal London, the mutual life, pensions and investment company, is in conversation with the British and Irish Lions Board about the feasibility of mounting a first women’s tour.

I presented my views on the subject when it first reared its head back in 2019. Then, as no further news was forthcoming, I took matters into my own hands last January by selecting two sides. No harm done, I hope.

That 2019 proposal lay in pre-pandemic times of course, and we can assume that nothing concrete will emerge until we are safely post-pandemic.

All the underlying problems remain, except now the possibility of funding. That would be a huge step forward. The others don’t’ offer easy answers: who to play? – when? – who’ll come and watch?

The great advantages the men’s version has are: a long, hallowed tradition; the three host countries involved, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, are all very used to playing a combined side from the four unions of the British Isles; the tour fills their coffers like nothing else; they are all strong enough to take on this combined might; vast numbers of B&I Lions supporters add greatly to the atmosphere; all four home unions can hope to figure more or less equally in the make-up of the touring squad.

None of those assets are easily transferable to a women’s version. Only the Black Ferns can match the strength of a B&I side; turnstiles are not likely to be overworked; home supporters would come over to watch but in reduced numbers, and the balance of power within the home nations is severely skewed towards the Red Roses. That is why I deliberately restricted myself to a 4+4+4+3 balance in my two selected Fifteens.

The men’s squad plays a series of matches against provincial and representative sides midweek. A parallel in the women’s version is hard to imagine – except in New Zealand and possibly Canada or France. So an initial tour would best comprise a series of tests plus perhaps make-up sides such as a national ‘A’ team or President’s XV.

New Zealand remains the obvious first port of call, but its location only adds to the financial and other burdens of the undertaking.

Canada has a fine squad ranked No 3 in the world. Rugby Canada might be willing and able to mount provincial games (eg East Coast, West Coast, Quebec). The USA would find it much harder to provide parallel opposition, and funding is proving elusive at present.

If France were chosen, it would be a completely new opening for the Lions. Many French rugby fans will be familiar with the existence of the B&I Lions, but most will have only a hazy idea of what it entails. The FFR would have to publicise and explain arrangements energetically.

Elite women’s rugby in France doesn’t operate regional groupings any more than England does. How would their perennial champions Montpellier react to an offer of a game against the best the British Isles can provide? Perhaps the way Saracens would react to playing against a full French side.

On balance you have to suspect that full-blown tests would be the sensible option, with perhaps the odd midweek match thrown in.

As for the ‘when?’

The women’s rugby diary is filling up nicely, thank you. So much so that World Rugby is still tussling with the problem of a global calendar that embraces the men’s and women’s games.

Clogging up the arteries are the Fifteens version – the RWC, the Six Nations, Autumn internationals and so on – and the Sevens schedules – the HSBC World Series, the World Cup, the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. And so many players commit to both versions of the game. Add to that the fact that the vast majority of them are amateur, so the times of year they are likely to be available for this additional tour probably lie in the summer only. Fitting a Lions operation into this pattern will be like threading a needle with your eyes tight shut.

Who’ll come and watch?

If France were the chosen destination, there would be inbuilt advantages. The French support their women’s team enthusiastically, although a new tradition would have to be established. One huge plus is that British supporters would find it a doddle popping over the Channel to join in the fun.
How appropriate that this news breaks of International Women’s Day.