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Women’s Lions – “When not if”

The success of the Barbarian’s women’s team and the rapid growth of women’s test rugby has ignited official interest in the creation of an official women’s Lions. We review what we know so far, and how the proposal may develop

It is a remarkable, but little known, fact that the first women’s Lions tour nearly happened 18 years ago.

As former England star Emma Mitchell told us this week, back in 2001 a group of women international players had “some incredibly positive meetings with the Lions Committee” about sending a team to Australia to play alongside that year’s men’s tour.

With players willing to cover their own hotel and travel costs, all that was needed was support from the Australian Rugby Union, which was declined because, Mitchell recalls, they were unable to find the budget for referees for the matches.

With that opportunity missed, nearly two decades have passed – but this week it was made public that the Lions Committee are in discussion with the Home Unions about establishing an official Lions team, with Ben Calveley, the Lions chief executive, saying it is a case of “when, not if”.

Reports from the BBC and Daily Telegraph revealed that representatives have already had “positive, informative and constructive" meetings with the English, Welsh and Scottish Unions, and will be meeting with Ireland shortly.

As readers will know, the Lions have a long history going back to 1888, and today tour Australia, New Zealand or South Africa every four years.

The Lions may be a much-hallowed tradition, but at its heart it is a serious commercial enterprise. The tours make a lot of money – an estimated turnover of £39 million over the four-year cycle.

So it is unlikely that the Lions interest in the women’s game is solely due to a principled belief in equality, but will just as much driven by sell-out crowds in places like Exeter and Grenoble, plus impressive TV ratings around the rugby world.

The last men's Lions tour in 2017 was to New Zealand, in 2021 they are due to travel to South Africa, and in 2025 will visit Australia.

This programme illustrates the two major problems with simply doing as Emma Mitchell and her colleagues wished to do – play alongside the men on their tours.

First, 2021 and 2025 are Women’s Rugby World Cup years. It is vanishingly unlikely that the unions would release players for Lions tours in World Cup years, or that World Rugby would agree to such tours, or even that hosts could be found, and it is also impossible to imagine that World Rugby would revise the international women’s calendar. As commentators have said in recent days, joint tours are off the table.

In addition, the years either side of Lions tours are possibly ruled out by Olympic Games in 2020 and 2024 and Sevens World Cups in 2022 and 2026.

With so many leading women players involved in both sevens and fifteens at present it would be impossible to field a properly representative Lions team in these years. As a result, the first possible women’s Lions tour seems unlikely to be possible before 2023.

Which raises the problem of where they would go.

Following the men’s schedule would see South Africa at the top of the list, but South Africa’s women’s teams are currently ranked outside the top 10 of women’s rugby, having not competed in World Cup since 2014 where they finished 10th.

Australia – next on the schedule - are ranked a little higher but were only 6th at the 2014 and 7th at the 2017 World Cups. Neither would be likely to offer the level of opposition that would pull in crowds, encourage tourists to travel, or excite the interest of TV executives.

New Zealand are another matter entirely, of course, but distance alone suggests it would be an expensive destination for the unproven concept of a first women's Lions tour. Also, as hosts of the World Cup in 2021 it would be understandable if the NZRU preferred not to commit themselves to hosting a second major event less than two years later. If 2021 is a big financial success they might be more enthusiastic, but a first Lions tour would need more than 18 month or so of planning.

It is therefore understandable that the destination that is being discussed in the press this week has been North America, with a Lions tour taking in both the United States and Canada, presumably with tests against both nations.

England have traditionally toured North America almost every summer, so the idea has a lot of merit in that it would not disrupt existing touring patterns significantly, and with both nations ranked in the top five of the women’s game the opposition would be stronger too.

The only snag might be money. While a Lions tour to North America would be a fantastic development opportunity, fundamentally the Lions are a commercial entity not a development team. Could the Canadian and US Unions guarantee attractive enough returns for the Lions Committee, especially for the first tour that would really need to be a success both off and on the field?

As a result, the third destination that is being discussed looks much the most attractive.

France is hardly a long way away, but as they showed with the recent Black Ferns tour, the French can fill stadia for women’s tests any day of the week, and any time of the year, and could guarantee to show games at prime time on main TV channels. The club sides are also almost as strong as the national team, which would allow for a “proper” Lions tour. As it would probably be an Autumn series it’s even possible to see such an event as early as 2022, after the Sevens World Cup.

France would be the perfect place to start, to try out the concept with little risk, before looking towards New Zealand or North America thereafter.

But for the moment it is all still very early days. The Home Unions need to be convinced, World Rugby need to be signed up, and hosts need to be brought onside.

There remains a long way to go.