Cast your mind back 12 months.
The British and Irish Lions limp to a much-criticised 13-7 victory over the Provincial Barbarians in the first match of the 2017 tour to New Zealand in Whangarei.
The game was littered by handling mistakes, indiscipline and unforced errors. In fact, the Lions conceded 14 turnovers in that game against a side made up mostly of Super Rugby hopefuls, led by the excellent Bryn Gatland who now plays full-time with the Auckland Blues.
The Lions arrived in New Zealand on the Wednesday before that game (which took place on a Saturday). Are three days enough to recover from a long-haul flight which originated in the UK? Hardly. Nevertheless, these short turnarounds are a feature of Lions tours and they make up a part of why the Lions are special – competing in the face of adversity to win a series which so few sides have done in the past.
However, with the increasing attritional nature of the game, this is simply no longer feasible. So it will be music to the ears of future Lions players and management that not only is the tour schedule to be reduced from 10 games in five weeks to eight games in the same period, but it is hoped that the players will have a full week to acclimatise to the touring country before the first game of said tour.
There are two benefits to this – increasing the chance of a successful tour and more importantly, protecting player welfare.
Implementing this idea comes with plenty of obstacles, however.
The global rugby calendar is bursting to the brim as it is. In order to accommodate this change in schedule, something has to give and what is being proposed is that the domestic competitions from the home unions should culminate a week earlier than usual.
According to Lions board member and WRU chairman, Gareth Davies, the PRO14 are open to the idea of ending their competition a week earlier.
“The PRO14 have already said that they are prepared to look at it and give us an extra week,” Davies told The Daily Mail. “There is no doubt we will probably ask the SANZAAR countries to push their tours on a week.”
So the PRO14 are willing, it seems possible that the SANZAAR nations will also accommodate, then what about the Premiership?
“Everybody needs to play a part here. There seems to be a feeling that everyone plays a part in the compromise, but the Premiership are above that.”
The latest bickering between Lions officials and the Premiership arose from comments made by Premiership Rugby’s Chief Executive, Mark McCafferty, who described moving the English season a week back as “suicide”.
“To go in and out of different formats is suicide,” McCafferty said. “For a product as strong as the Premiership to mess around, it would massively damage the brand.”
“Product”, “brand”, words becoming increasingly synonymous with rugby union throughout the world but the brand – be it the PRO14, Premiership, Super Rugby, the Lions, whatever, would be nothing without its most prized asset – the players.
We have already seen situations arise this year where players have been released outside of designated international windows – Taulupe Faletau playing against the Springboks in December. Bath were fined £60,000 by Premiership Rugby as a result of this. This is no surprise, more star players on show = more bums on seats.
Now, the Premiership are not to blame for this, it is stipulated in Faletau’s and other non-English Premiership players’ contracts that they cannot play outside designated windows established by World Rugby’s Regulation 9.
However, let’s assume that the Premiership won’t budge on the requests of Lions officials. What will happen? Will there be two touring parties departing to South Africa in 2021? One for PRO14 representatives and another for the rest a week later? Or will the success of a potential Lions tour be hampered by one organisation’s reluctance to give in to a request?
The issue here is that the bigger picture is being missed in a spectacular way.
Like most Lions tours throughout the years, the largest representation will be made up of English players who ply their trade in England. Why run the risk of allowing your players to be involved in a game just three days after travelling halfway around the world?
It’s the consistent presence of English stars which is one of the strongest (and often criticised) elements of the Premiership – “We have our best players playing week in, week out.” – Why risk that by increasing the likelihood of injury, burnout or mental fatigue? It’s not in their best interest.
Damian Hopley, CEO of the Rugby Players Association, who represent professional rugby players in England wrote last year: “Then surely this squad [The Lions] needs to be guaranteed a minimum preparation time together and certainly not have the farcical situation of arriving in NZ only three days before the first game.”
As he says, three days preparation time is farcical and not only will a week help with the potential success of future Lions tours, but it will also contribute to protecting what is most important – player welfare, both physical and mental.