What is the currency of the British & Irish Lions after New Zealand 2017?
The simple answer to the question in the title of the article is $69 million NZ dollars. That is the monetary amount that educated estimates suggest will be generated by the Lions cycle (every four years) for the host union.
In the year of the previous Lions tour to New Zealand (2005), total income for the NZRFU increased from $105m to $147m – and the year after it dropped back by $53m to under $100m. The 2005 Lions tour improved the host union’s concrete asset base by 22% over twelve months, whereas their financial assets only increased by 11% in the entire twelve year cycle between Lions visits.
Maximising income from a Lions tour is one reason why two of the three Test matches have been staged at Eden Park (New Zealand’s biggest stadium), while most of the other tour matches have occurred in major metropolitan stadiums, against sides stacked with All Black and Super Rugby experience.
A Lions tour therefore represents a massive steroid injection to the local rugby economy, one without which the host union would be left struggling to manage their financial affairs in the years that follow it.
That is the perspective in the Southern Hemisphere – up North it is quite different. In New Zealand the Lions played their first game against the NZ provincial Barbarians only 72 hours after a gruelling two-day flight with an eleven hour time difference. Given that it takes the body roughly one day to adjust to every hour of time difference, the Lions should not have been scheduled to play their opening game for another ten days.
The finals of both the Guinness Pro 12 and the English Premiership play-offs occurred on 27 May, only six days before the Lions’ opening tour match on 3 June. That (and the unavailability of several key players involved in those matches) only compounded the problem.
Back in March, World Rugby’s governing body moved to harmonize the global calendar by shifting the existing June international window to July. The idea behind the move was to create room for both rest and recuperation for Northern Hemisphere players at the end of a long domestic season, and space for a proper preparation for their summer tours.
Shortly afterwards, Premiership Rugby (the English Premiership’s governing body) announced plans to move their own play-off final from May to June, while retaining a September start to the season. In other words, they wanted to fill the month which had been intended for rest and preparation with extra matches instead.
Beginning with the 2019-2020 season, international players in the Northern Hemisphere have therefore been confronted by the daunting prospect of an eleven month season, in which the recovery time for mind and body is ever-shrinking.
As the Rugby Players Association chairman Christian Day put it,
“The prospect of an international season becoming 11 months with a summer tour begins to stretch the boundaries of what’s possible. If you add in the five-week rest period, which the RPA fought really hard for as a mental and physical recharge for the players, it basically means there is no off-season. It is an incredible ask of our elite players…I suspect Premier Rugby haven’t planned it all yet. They could easily have shifted to an October start and June finish. That isn’t something they are currently choosing to look at. We need to understand why.”
As England hooker Tom Youngs added, “I think it fills us all with a little dread… To just extend the season, I don’t think that would really work.”
The real answer to Christian Day’s question probably relates most significantly to the macro-climate of world rugby, and the ongoing arm-wrestle between privately-owned clubs in England and France and the unions who run the international game.
The clubs enjoy primacy of contract with all of their players (even the internationals) in those countries and therefore regard the players as their ‘assets’. However the privately-owned club game still has a long way to go in order to prove that it is economically sustainable without hand-outs from the unions. It is revenue from international rugby that sustains the unions.
The two are inextricably linked in this circle of economic life but don’t seem to realize it. There is still a failure of connection which ultimately threatens both player welfare and the future of rugby institutions like Lions’ tours.
The next step in the process is the loss of two matches (from the existing ten game format) from future Lions’ tours, starting with the 2021 tour to South Africa. Naturally Premiership Rugby campaigned for an even greater reduction to seven tour games. In 2009 the Lions had paid Premiership clubs approximately £470,000 in order to guarantee a full week’s preparation before the last tour of South Africa, but four years later a similar proposal was rejected.
Something has to give. Eight games is the bare minimum to guarantee the kind of financial return needed by the host union, and maintain the traditional ethos of a Lions tour, which includes midweek games and means a full engagement with the local community.
That is the view of the 2017 Lions tour manager John Spencer. He sees in the reduction of matches both less preparation time for the Lions Test side, and a loss of what he calls the ‘moral force’ of the engagement with the community:
“What other sport could take between 20,000 to 30,000 supporters away from home, help the economy of the host country and keep the creed and concept of the Lions going – and here we are artificially trying to hit it around the head with a bat.”
The current political momentum suggests that a further reduction to a tour format of five or six Saturday-only matches is likely in future. It is an idea I discussed with Graham Henry as long ago as the 2001 Lions trip to Australia.
Reducing a Lions tour to just over one month in length, with no midweek matches, would allow a greater concentration of elite talent (no more than 30 players would be required) and avoid the kind of devaluation that occurred in New Zealand with the enlisting of the “geography six” from assorted Scottish and Welsh tours that happened to be occurring in the Southern Hemisphere around the same time as the Lions tour of New Zealand.
It would also create space for that moral force of which Spencer speaks to be applied and fully appreciated on the ‘free days’ in midweek. It would encourage the increased frequency of Lions tours (every other summer?), and create a shorter economic cycle for the host union of six years.
The shorter tour concept could even be reinforced by another novel idea suggested by Sir Graham Henry, the concept of staging Lions series’ in the U.K, with Test venues (and revenues) shared between all the four home unions.
Why not? Why can’t the Lions tradition be updated more quickly and more decisively than the privately-owned club game? Change is inevitable, and it is better that it occurs while still in real contact with one of the game’s greatest surviving traditions.