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Jeff Probyn: Baa-baas ‘Test’ would solve the Lions tour conundrum

Sometimes you have to ask why people ask questions when something has already been decided upon and accepted by all. I had a meeting earlier this week with someone quite influential within the game, who told me that the idea of shortening the Lions tours had already been agreed by all the stakeholders and that this will be rolled out in four years’ time for the South African tour.

I was told that everybody knew this before the start of the last tour including the Lions management and it is accepted that unless the Lions could come up with more money to pay for the release of players nothing would change.

It is an inevitable consequence of the global season but by a quirk of fate has been given an opportunity to show that shortening tours will appear not to disadvantage the Lions and may in fact boost the chances of winning the series.

A shortened series would, it was said, allow time after the end of the club season for proper preparation before starting the games.

That may be true, but the quirk of fate is the fact that the next Lions tour is to South Africa, a country that is on the same time-line as the UK which means there is no need for recovery time from the flight.

Unlike Australia and New Zealand where it can take up to ten days to recover from the flights and jetlag, a trip to South Africa is no more strenuous than flying to Spain, just a bit longer.

A successful South African Lions tour would prove that shortening the tour was not a problem and had in fact helped the players in terms of rest and recuperation before starting the arduous tour schedules.

However, if the next tour had been to Australia and players were forced to play while still suffering the effects of the flight, they would probably struggle to get the winning results and may well suffer more injuries, casting further doubt on future Lions tours.

The main architects of the shortened tours are the English Premiership clubs. As much as they insist that the main concern is player welfare and the overplaying of players, they are, as Exeter chairman Tony Rowe said, all businesses.

There is a possible solution that could solve all the problems which honestly boil down to just one thing, money.

As I said last week, the idea that the Lions play a series at home is a nonstarter, as New Zealand, Australia and South Africa would not want to forego their 12-yearly financial windfalls but there is an alternative.

After every Lions tour, the host country takes part in the autumn internationals and so will already be travelling to the UK. If the Lions were to reform under the banner of the Barbarians and played the ‘extra international’ at the end of the autumn series, it could generate around £7m in ticket sales alone.

Add the potential TV and sponsorship money and there should be more than enough to placate all the clubs concerned, with a bit left over for the Barbarians.

What is a surprise is that England never took the option of doing it this year with New Zealand already set to play the Barbarians at Twickenham. It was maybe that Eddie Jones feels that the players who were on the Lions tour have had sufficient exposure to the All Blacks and now need to focus on how Jones wants England to play.

Whatever the reason, it is a missed opportunity to start something that would have every rugby fan salivating at the prospect and something for all those home fans that couldn’t afford to travel on a Lions tour. The chance to see the Barbarians playing a Lions Test match live as they did in 1973, a game with arguably the best try in the history of the sport, while providing the financial clout to ensure the Lions live on.

The global season must take some of the blame for the possible demise of the Lions but it has shown what it could potentially offer the game with the deal to expand the PRO12.

The extra revenues that the two South African franchises bring to the table are virtually doubling the money the league was getting for its TV rights, even though they are the two weakest Super Rugby teams. It is the first evidence of the potential of a cross hemisphere club competition and the money that could be available should clubs choose to embrace the idea.

There have been many suggested games from the European champions playing the Super Rugby winner to just one-off fixtures, the one sure thing is that all will be watching the PRO14 to see how it works and whether it is a success with fans.

I believe that if the PRO14 works the Premiership and the Top 14 won’t be prepared to stay on the sidelines forever. The worry for World Rugby is just how this could grow and whether it could eventually have a negative impact on the international game and the World Cup.

n Good to see World Rugby has strengthened the law on the straight put-in at the scrum, it will be interesting to see if the referees enforce it.

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