As the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour draws to a close, opinion will be divided on whether rugby’s last traditional travelling circus has a future in professional rugby’s congested schedule. The proposed trip to South Africa in 2021 will see the Lions play just eight matches instead of ten. But, as Scotty Stevenson ponders, what if we added another three tests without troubling the blokes at all?
If rugby in the UK continues to grow at its current rates, there could be up to 40,000 registered female players in England alone by the time of the next British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa. In 2016, a year ahead of schedule, the RFU reported it had reached its strategic target of 25,000 female players, up from 15,500 just three years before. England are the reigning world champions, have the benefit of a fully-fledged annual six-nations championship to ensure regular competition, and will this year launch the Super Rugby competition featuring ten professional female club teams.
Ireland, Scotland and Wales have some way to go to catch up the standards set by the England national team, which last month underlined its favouritism for this year’s women’s World Cup with a defeat of the Black Ferns in Rotorua, but all nations could benefit from copying England’s overarching management strategy. And perhaps Lions tours of the future could benefit from having women involved, too.
With that, let’s discuss the 2021 British and Irish Lionesses.
I’ll let those of a certain traditional bent pick up the ice cubes they’ve just spat out before explaining that this isn’t my idea (I know a ‘Lionesses tour’ has been mooted before, but credit for this column goes to my mate Dan Tate who, apropos of absolutely nothing at all, sent me a message asking why there was not such a thing). I wish this was my idea. I love good ideas.
How good would it be to see the best female players from the home nations on a three-test tour that dovetails with the men’s? I’m talking about double-headers here, two test matches on the same day at the same ground. Suddenly your eight-game tour is an 11-game tour!
Imagine what that dangling carrot could do to further fast-track the growth of the women’s game in the home unions! Imagine what it could do for women’s rugby in South Africa! The appeal of the Olympic Games breathed life into the New Zealand Women’s sevens programme. An historical Lionesses series could do the same for women’s rugby in the Republic.
I realise that women’s rugby has a long way to go before it can claim to match the appeal of the men’s game (the fact that the sports media, which I am aware I am a part of, is with a few notable exceptions a giant sausage sizzle does not aid in this) but where is the harm in creating something special to reflect the giant strides the women’s game has made both in both participation numbers and skill?
Some would counter that there are not sufficient revenue opportunities to launch a concurrent female touring party. I would say that if there are sufficient revenues to ship seven and half tonnes of gear, including bottled water and specialty coffee, and 800 playing jerseys, not to mention the estimated (and this may or may not be accurate) 4,327 support and management staff, all of whom seem to be filming something on a phone or walking about hurriedly in a stadium jacket looking for a purpose, then you can find the cash to fund a ground-breaking team.
There must be sponsors out there who would jump at a chance like this. Surely they’d be queueing up like Lions’ fans at the beer tent to be the naming rights partners of the Lionesses. After all, in the UK, just as it is in New Zealand and in the USA, female participation in rugby is growing at a far faster rate than male participation. Rugby’s uniqueness as a game for all types of body shapes and sizes make it perfectly suited to those searching for a sport that does not lower the boom on participants purely because of physiology. That’s a powerful message to attach one’s brand to.
The power of the women in our game to be genuine change agents should not be ignored. The RFU estimates that 100,000 women are involved in some capacity with rugby in the UK. Would it not be a symbol of the sport’s appreciation and recognition of them to take steps toward a tour such as this?
I for one would be there watching if I could. And I would not be alone. Recently World Rugby announced that all three match days at Dublin’s UCD Bowl during next month’s women’s World Cup have sold out. That is tangible, calculable, evidence of the growing interest in the game.
That is the early rumbling of a new kind of roar.
This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia