Nick Cain: Fixture list gives Lions a mauling for starters

Warren GatlandThe Lions are the biggest brand in rugby alongside the All Blacks. The Lions generate huge interest, lining the coffers of the host country, and its Union, with millions of pounds, with Australia the beneficiaries in 2013.
An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 fans will be digging into their savings accounts to make the trip Down Under to support the most famous touring side in the world game – and yet, unbelieveably, the Lions will be handicapped from the start.
If it wasn’t already a fiendishly difficult task to find the right blend for a winning tour, with four rival nations to bring together on and off the pitch in a shared cause in the space of a few weeks, the suits that run the game in the Home Unions have saddled the Lions with a ludicrous schedule.
It is one that is so self-defeating that you suspect that an Aussie fifth-columnist must have been pulling the strings when it was decided.
Who else could have come up with a scheme that sees the Premiership and the Pro 12 finals played on May 25, which is a week before the Lions are scheduled to play the Barbarians in Hong Kong, en route to their nine-match, three Test crusade in Australia.
The Lions needed a bare minimum of a fortnight together ahead of the Hong Kong assignment, to get to know each other and make their hasty preparations to shoot down the Wallabies.
Instead, they will get less than a week, and of that they will spend a day on travel to Hong Kong. There is also a real likelihood that many of the Lions’ leading players will be involved in those domestic finals, resulting in one of two unsatisfactory outcomes.
They will either get on the plane to Hong Kong in a battered state with little or no time to get themselves in Lions mode, or the tour party will be split from the get-go with the players from the Pro 12 and Premiership finals missing out on Hong Kong and going straight to the Perth, to prepare for the first assignment in Australia against the Western Force.
The zero flexibility for the Lions in this season’s fixture list is mind-numbing. The developmental LV=Cup is still holding down six weekends of action for the English clubs and Welsh regions in the middle of the season (two in November, one each in January and February, and two in March), while the Pro 12, contrary to common sense, is taking four of those weekends off rather than giving the Lions some breathing space.
Both the  Pro 12 and Premiership finals could have been played on May 10-11 through the simple expedient of the Pro 12 using one of their spare weekends and through the Premiership clubs agreeing with the sponsors to play one round of the LV=Cup in midweek under floodlights.
The LV=Cup scheduling is exactly the sort of issue that the Premiership Game Board was created to deal with, and, just as in the London Welsh promotion case, it has proved to be a waste of space.
If those adjustments had been made the Lions would have had only Heineken Cup final absentees to deal with, and, as that is played on May 18, they would still have had a fortnight to get it together before going to Hong Kong.
Instead, we have a domestic fixture list which seems entirely to ignore the fact that when the Lions are victorious, as we have seen from the 1971, 1974, 1989 and 1997 tours, the game in Britain and Ireland gets an almighty boost, a surge in popularity which is unrivalled. The benefits reach not just the main arteries of the professional sport, but through to even the tiniest capillaries in the body of rugby in the four Home Unions. Broadcast revenues are up, gates are up, interest is up.
And yet British and Irish administrators continue to play fast and loose with the Lions.
When will the suits who organise the fixture lists and liaise with sponsors ever get their act together and combine to treat the Lions as the crown jewel they are rather than as a trinket?

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