Source: British and Irish Lions

A British and Irish Women’s Lions tour confirmed

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A British and Irish Lions has come one step further. But five years after a first optimistic mention in 2019, we still have no confirmed details beyond a basic three-match test series in New Zealand in 2027.

Two major backers are announced, Royal London and Howden. And yes, we must now speak of the Howden British and Irish Lions tour. The Lions have a named sponsor; that helps allay concerns about the financial implications. But it would have been more convincing if the announcement had added more precise details, the number of any matches beyond the tests, and crucially, whether a B&I Lions squad will be picked on merit alone.

These are central issues that needed clarifying. Public responses have assumed that the squad will consist overwhelmingly of English players. That would fall in line with what Shaunagh Brown, a board member, implied in an earlier statement.

If the squad is indeed to be selected on merit alone, then it will be little more than another Black Ferns versus Red Roses contest with one of the teams wearing a red shirt.

Ben Calveley, the B&I Lions CEO, should have given a hint, even at this early stage, about the make-up of the squad. It is one thing to welcome the support of all four home unions; quite another to indicate its intra-national balance.

Imagine the strongest XV England could put out against the Black Ferns, something along the lines of:
Kildunne; Dow, Scarratt/Heard, Rowland, Breach/Macdonald, Aitchison/Harrison, Infante/Hunt; Cornborough/Botterman, Atkin-Davies/Cokayne, Bern, Aldcroft, Ward, Kabeya/Talling/Beckett, Packer, Matthews/Cleall.

Which of them do you exclude to enable Irish, Scottish and Welsh players to get a look in? Is Konkel really a better player than Matthews; ditto Joyce than Dow, ditto Monaghan than Aldcroft?

Extra Matches

New Zealand sources give the impression that at least two further matches would be included. That is vital. Back to tradition: past men’s tours tended to have a big match each weekend, with a provincial or representative match fitted into mid-week. On less happy tours players grew unhappy at knowing they were condemned to a series of Tuesday/Wednesday games against lesser opposition. They named themselves the T&Ws.

In the women’s case, it would mean a better chance of players from Ireland, Scotland and Wales playing a sequence of matches, since the balance of power within the British Isles is far more unbalanced here than in the men’s game.

There are four Super Aupiki franchises, so to my mind a match against each of them would be fairer to all concerned, and a chance to ensure that at least one match was held on South Island, unlike the 2021 RWC. Matatū, the current Aupiki champions, would be the opposition.

Varied Ambitions

Gaining a Lions shirt is seen as the summit of rugby success, for a strictly limited number of players. Among the potential women’s team, how many would place it above World Cup success? Few, if any, of the English; only a few more among the Celts? That’s a rash estimate, but if you gave an individual player the option, would she really choose the Queen of the Jungle?

At the same time a Lions tour can only affect the fate of other nations adversely. Lions v Black Ferns is an elite version of an elite group. Do they need this extra cosseting?

Well, four of the five nations involved have known very hard times in the 2020s. Reviews have revealed bad practice by national boards, bosses have been sacked, names sullied. For the Celts the Lions would mean another rare chance to tour; for the Ferns a desperately needed outing against worthy opposition. But the rest of women’s rugby around the world would be put on the back-burner.

A Skewed View

It’s impossible to see how World Rugby could find itself backing this extension to a tradition that goes back well over a century. It simply reinforces the notion of the top nations devouring more of the global calendar than is fair.

Shaunagh Brown bids us think of the glories of the best players from the four unions taking on the world champions. But would all four find a place? Imagine for a moment John Mitchell being the selector and coach. He would have few concerns about offending a nation by overlooking its top players. With a men’s squad that is par for the course.

The B&I Lions’ statement seems more concerned about thanking the various companies supporting the venture than explaining the nitty-gritty. We know the tour will happen in September 2027, a so-called ‘window’ in the calendar, but is it really accounting for other major events, including Sevens, that eat into the year, with the need for preparation and rest and recuperation? How will the WXV be affected? It isn’t mentioned here.

Calveley writes of ‘sell-out crowds’ attending the games. That’s what we must all wish for, but it would be a first for Aotearoa. For neither the 2021 RWC nor the WXV last year did Kiwi fans show the least intention of filling grounds to bursting point; rather the opposite.

It’s worrying to read Joseph Pearson, a level-headed reporter for stuff.co.nz, saying: ‘The Lions tour will be the next major event in women’s 15s after the 2025 World Cup in England.’

That completely ignores the WXV, which, to any even-handed observer of the game, must rank as second only to a World Cup.

The word elitism comes to mind. Should we be interested exclusively in powerhouses?

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