Nick Cain col­umn

Don’t mur­der the Lions for a duff Cup com­pe­ti­tion

The Rugby Paper - - Front Page -

“The Lions would be turned from a liv­ing, roar­ing suc­cess into a moth-eaten par­ody within a decade”

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 five­week 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 dirt­track­ers 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 Gloucesing ter 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 play- 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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