Source: Lichfield RUFC

Leicester and Lichfield

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An unequal Marriage or a Love-nest for Two?

Leicester Tigers’ announcement of an agreement with Lichfield RUFC has aroused a wave of comment, much of it hostile.

Andrea Pinchen, Tigers’ CE, recently indicated the club’s intention to set up a women’s section, but this link is of a quite different order. You might call it taking the easy way out. You select a well established women’s club and hold out the hand of friendship, rather than doing the hard graft and building a women’s section from scratch.

That is certainly the view of some contributors to social media – who may or may not be diehard Tigers’ fans.

Pinchen comments: ‘Lichfield will be fantastic advisors on our journey and we will work with them at all levels to ensure their legacy continues…’ Not a brave statement of independent adventure-seeking.
Her counterpart, Roz Jermine, head of ladies’ rugby at Lichfield, is all in favour of the link, so our doubts should be calmed.

The news leads to all sorts of related issues

will be the nature of the tie-up? Tigers are one of the great English clubs. Why do they only now make this gesture towards women’s rugby? Why do they not announce a standalone policy?

Why do they choose Lichfield, once one of the great women’s clubs in England, which failed to be included in the initial Premier 15s structure in 2017 amid scenes of shock and disbelief?

Why does Pinchen single out Lichfield as a club with which Leicester has close ties? The two cities lie some 39 miles apart (by road), somewhat less if you have a crow handy for transportation.

The team would be called Lichfield Leicester Tigers. Some cynics reckon that name would very soon lose its first element.

Matches would be played in the Championship North Division One, both at Cooke Fields and Welford Road. More cynics wonder how long the Lichfield ground would retain its use.

Of course the Lichfield players would love to have the tonic of such powerful backing and to appear at Welford Road. But would Tigers’ fans, famous for their partisanship, be ready to travel those 39 miles to watch a combined team play at Cooke Fields?

Vicky Macqueen (ex-England 2004-9 and founder of Didi rugby) will head the coaching programme. A Leicester-driven camp has already taken place at Lichfield.

Lichfield responded to its exile with its usual courage. Now the hand of friendship is held out by another major club in a different county. Could that friend possibly turn out to be a devouring ogre?

Some observers fear yes.

This move is bound to affect Loughborough Lightning, a few miles up the road from Leicester. Why were they not approached? What would be the effect on them of a rival AP 15s club so close at hand?

Any Precedents?

One observer looked for previous examples of a takeover and alighted on Harlequins’ acquisition of Aylesford Bulls, two clubs that also lie far apart. But the situation there was totally different. The Bulls, based in a small town north of Maidstone, found themselves unable to maintain their very successful women’s section and were planning to close it down. Quins, in a similar position to Tigers now, offered a solution to the crisis. Result: they are current national champions.

The wider picture

The matter stretches much further. It adds another piece to the jigsaw the RFU is trying to solve before the next refranchising of the AP 15s in 2023. How do they accommodate all those aspirant clubs?

Here are a few possible options for the RFU:

1. Leave untouched
2. Favour Premiership clubs. That would mean giving DMPDS and Loughborough Lightning the cold shoulder. Hoho, sooner ye than me.
3. Enlarge the AP 15s – how far can chewing-gum stretch?
4. Require all aspirant clubs to compete in the Championship. But that would harm clubs already well established there.
5. Require all aspirant clubs to start at the bottom of the ladder and work their way up.

In other words, there is no catch-all solution without doing serious harm to parts of the women’s game. The RFU wants to encourage the commitment of those big clubs not already installed in the AP 15s, but the fear persists that other honourable clubs could pay a heavy price as Lichfield did.

A final point: no replacement has yet been announced for Nicky Ponsford, Head of Performance for England Women, who is on secondment to World Rugby. Recent statements from the RFU have been signed by Conor O’Shea. We can only hope that able minds at Twickenham are responding to these complex matters.