Saracens chairman Nigel Wray reckons staging Lions ‘tours’ within the British Isles would offer a radical solution to the rancorous issue of scheduling and player welfare, whilst enabling the historic brand to maximise its huge commercial clout.
Wray’s insistence that Lions matches against the All Blacks and Wallabies should be played in Wembley, Twickenham, Cardiff, Dublin or Edinburgh follows suggestions that Premiership clubs are ready to play hardball over future player release.
Plans to shorten tours from ten to eight, or even six matches are in train, while Exeter supremo Tony Rowe has described the Lions concept as a “throwback to the amateur days”, insisting clubs should receive vastly increased compensation for the use of their players “commensurate with the asset”.
Premiership clubs are compensated to the tune of £60,000 per Lions player – a sum Rowe describes as “farcical” – while Leicester chief executive Simon Cohen has voiced serious concerns over welfare issues created by Test calls.
Cohen said: “It’s unfair on the players to ask what we’re currently asking. It’s difficult for clubs, who are the ones that find, develop, nurture, pay players, to expect that – whatever the money – they must do without their players for a large part of the season.
“What’s the longest tour that the game can accommodate? I think it’s considerably shorter than we’re currently playing. The Lions have to look at it differently and, if they’re not prepared to, they run the risk of a conflict.”
Wray believes hosting Lions matches provides a solution that not only addresses player welfare and club issues, but would create far greater revenue – a good proportion of which would benefit Southern Hemisphere nations.
Wray told The Rugby Paper: “The Lions is a fantastic brand so why not make it even bigger by playing games against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa within Britain and Ireland? That would be absolutely amazing.
“You’ve got far bigger stadia in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Dublin holding 75,000 to 90,000 people, who would be paying dramatically more money to watch than they do in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.
“Matches would be played at the optimum time for television so you would generate huge sums of money – far greater than now – which would not just be good for the game here, but would help sustain the Southern Hemisphere nations.”
Whilst the end of touring would disappoint the tens of thousands of Lions fans who save for years to travel Down Under, Wray argues radical decisions are needed if the Lions are to avoid being culled.
He said: “It does all boil down to money and if the Lions want to protect their brand, which has huge commercial value, they have to treat it as a commercial venture with their suppliers, which in our case is Premiership Rugby.
“Saracens had six players on the field last week and if Billy Vunipola had been there it would have been seven. That’s a huge honour, but obviously it puts wear and tear on the players and the clubs pay a heavy price as well.
“The current schedules and compensation levels are ludicrous, so there might come a point when the clubs simply say No. It’s about the British Lions sitting down with the clubs now and organising something that is fair.”