Source: British and Irish Lions

A Lions Tour – A Going Concern?

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The Times has reported plans  to stage a British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 2027.

This news come packed with problems, many of which I have discussed in previous postings. They include:

Discussions and more discussions

It’s three years since the B&I board set up a panel to discuss possibilities. It’s taking a very long time.

Host Country

New Zealand was the only reasonable destination. Of the other nations the men’s team visits regularly neither Australia nor South Africa could offer the same benefits. The planning committee has correctly discounted the only other two to come into consideration, Canada and France.

Calendar

The global calendar the women’s game now enjoys will be a deciding factor in when the tour is squeezed into the year. There are still gaps, but the meeting of northern and southern hemisphere sides means the seasons don’t synchronise perfectly. The Six Nations is an established event, to which we must now add WXV. Avoiding clashes with national leagues and tournaments (eg Super Aupiki) is essential.

But NZR will be delighted to offer the Black Ferns more test matches of the right order of strength, a plea they have been making for years.

Who?

There are two former women internationals on the panel of decision makers, Niamh Briggs, now an assistant to Scott Bemand with the Irish national side, and Shaunagh Brown of England. It’s fascinating to find Brown insisting that any Lions squad should be picked solely on ability; no question of quota selection from the four nations involved. That wish opens a can of worms.

It relates to the question I asked long ago: how does the squad avoid consisting to a vast extent of Red Roses? I even went so far to select a Fifteen split into four Irish, Scots and Welsh, with three English to make up the numbers.

According to Brown you can now throw that out of the window. Then you must decide which Celtic players pick themselves ahead of their English counterparts. To get an unbiased decision, you really need to find an independent observer who has watched any number of Six Nations (and PWR?) matches over the past two years. Not easy.

In practical terms: which Irish, Scottish and Welsh players would you place in higher esteem than the strongest squad the Red Roses could send out? And remember, the side that put 33 points on the Black Ferns on the last day on WXV1 was well short of full strength.

The only Celtic side ever to beat the Black Ferns was Ireland in a never-to-be-forgotten World Cup game in 2014. And their win helped England gain one of their two RWC trophies. Hoho.

Which brings us to a point of burning controversy every time a men’s squad is chosen. Why so many XXXs and so few YYYs? You can tell the nationality of the questioner by his target.

It’s easiest to imagine a selection panel representing the four nations, but with a fifth person, probably the Chair, to ensure a decisive verdict. Their first task would be to choose the coaching team, itself the trickiest of tasks, as so many well qualified women come to mind. Then to decide how far the head coach can have a say in the final choices. No point in sending out a team headed by a coach who does not agree with its make-up.

History again tells us that a happy pairing of manager and head coach is vital for a successful tour.

One advantage a women’s Lions squad would have over a men’s equivalent is that, for good or ill, so many Celtic players are used to appearing alongside English players in the PWR. Not so the men, for the most part.

I wonder why the Times report is headed by a photo of triumphant Red Roses.

How many matches?

A series of three tests is envisaged. A second statement of intent from Brown was for games other than tests to be staged. That falls in line with long-standing Lions tradition, but in recent decades tours have become shorter and shorter. It would be a delight to see representative or regional sides again able to pit themselves against the Lions. Some of the most glorious legends of men’s tours have involved a local side beating incoming tourists. Try asking anyone from Llanelli.

The number of tour games will also decide the size of the squad. The fewer the games, the fewer the players able to enjoy the honour of wearing a Lions shirt.

Matches below test level give the management the opportunity to refine their selections. And that is one central reason for preferring New Zealand as a destination.

Attendances

In an upbeat report The Times concentrates on the World Cup final attendance of 43,000 at Eden Park. It does not mention the enormous effort the planners had to put in to attract that new record gate. Nor the sad fact that not even Kiwis have shown themselves ready to turn out in large numbers to watch international matches without a big publicity drum being beaten. WXV1 was poorly attended. The Lions brand is a huge magnet in the southern hemisphere, so we can only hope that it will help attract audiences worthy of the occasion.

The Choice is yours

You are now invited to sit down in a quiet room and select say 35 players to make the trip. Of course, you will be judging on present standings, not how the game and the players will look in three years’ time. But that doesn’t make your task any easier. And best not to bump into a player you have omitted in your local cafe.

You can get a sense of my reactions to the news from the following links:

4theloveofsport.co.uk/2019/08/02/a-british-and-irish-lions-tour-another-step-towards-equality/

4theloveofsport.co.uk/2021/03/08/a-womens-lions-tour-comes-a-step-closer/

4theloveofsport.co.uk/2023/02/28/the-lions-the-next-stage/

4theloveofsport.co.uk/2022/02/16/the-womens-british-and-irish-lions-seek-advice/

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