THE idea of Lions tours running through July into the first week in August, clashing with Test cricket, football World Cups and European Championships, tennis at Wimbledon, the British Open, and racing at Ascot, is nothing short of administrative vandalism.
Make no mistake, the decision to jam the Lions – the most famous touring side in sport – into a five-week window of eight matches during the height of a British summer, will leave them mortally wounded if it is allowed to stand.
It is part of a new administrative order that ignores the ‘more is less’ message. As a result of pushing the Lions into no man’s land it brings with it the danger of doing serious harm to the overall dynamic in Rugby Union, because it is toying with a concept that is as invaluable as it is unique.
The damage will be lasting, with the Lions turned from a living, roaring success into a moth-eaten parody within a decade.
Instead of safeguarding the Lions, what the architects of English rugby’s new endless season threaten to deliver is wall-to-wall oval ball action – a 12 month overload of such proportion that the buzz of anticipation around our sport’s great traditional showpieces is squashed flat.
While Premiership Rugby’s chief executive Mark McCafferty has never had much love for the Lions, it is surprising that his counterparts at the RFU, Steve Brown, and at the Rugby Players Association, Damian Hopley, have allowed him such leeway.
The move threatens to alter the culture of the Lions completely. A five-week itinerary containing three Tests is more like an extended international series than a tour.
The idea of every player getting a fair chance of being selected in the Test side with only three provincial matches in which to make their case before the Test series is a nonsense. At best, it means that by the end of the second week many will know they are dirt-trackers with very little chance of playing in the Tests, and the whole appeal of going on a Lions tour will be blown to smithereens.
If that manifests itself in leading players starting to declare that they are unavailable before the tour starts, the Lions concept will wilt and then die.
Similarly, as the 2017 Lions manager, John Spencer, pointed out in Auckland the day after the series in New Zealand was drawn, no coach worth their salt is going to want to commit to a tour in which the prospect of inadequate preparation of a scratch side makes it virtually impossible to win.
It is another bullet pumped into the Lions. The spectre of an amalgamated side simply jetting-in for a three-Test series over three weeks is looming already. However, the idea of tens of thousands of British and Irish fans bothering to cross the globe to support a series between a scratch Lions team, and a New Zealand, South African or Australian side which has been in camp half a season is unlikely.
The magic will have gone, and those who have tinkered with the English season will be culpable. And for what? For the Premiership Cup? It is a skewed, unbalanced competition that spans six weekends of the season. It also treads the path of repetition, where, instead of leading English clubs playing each other twice a season they now meet three or four times a year – or more if they are drawn in the same European Cup pool.
While the initial crowds for the first round of the Premiership Cup held up well at Bath (14,000), and both Gloucester and Northampton (12,000 each) were buoyed by their inclusion in the season ticket, the drop-off at Saracens (7,000) and Worcester (6,000) was probably more indicative of where the interest will get to in a tournament with such a contrived format.
The idea that the Premiership Cup is worth pushing the season to the end of June for, while refusing every fourth year to give the Lions a little leeway, beggars belief. Yet, that is the position adopted by McCafferty, who has gone on record that Premiership Rugby will not budge.
That is why the suggestion that Premiership Rugby might be amenable to negotiating with the Lions over earlier player release for the 2021 South Africa tour if the right level of financial inducement is available struck a raw nerve.
It appears McCafferty and company do have some flexibility in bringing the Premiership final forward to the third Saturday, June 19, as opposed to playing it on June 26. This would allow the English Lions – instead of being put at a massive selection disadvantage by McCafferty and company – to join the Celtic PRO14 contingent for a training week prior to their opening game on July 3.
It begs the question why on earth negotiations on compensation were not concluded before last week’s announcement of the endless English season, so that the Lions at least knew they had the week of preparation in the UK before leaving for their first game in South Africa. Instead, the Premiership position has made the game look like an unprofessional laughing stock.
Even then it is the thin end of the wedge. Lions tours should be a minimum of six-week ten-match tours, as in New Zealand in 2017. The Lions is a hugely successful, inspirational part of our sport – and killing it for the sake of duff competitions like the Premiership Cup is criminal.
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