Since 1888, the British and Irish Lions have been the pinnacle of rugby as the best of the best from the home nations compete against powerhouses of the southern hemisphere.
However, only recently has talk arisen of the potential of a women’s side being formed. It was announced that Royal London, who are the UK’s largest pensions and investment company, have joined forces to become principal partners of a women’s Lions programme.
Royal London will invest in a feasibility study, which will establish whether there is a realistic chance of a tour being formed.
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) March 8, 2021
So, what are the factors that can make a Women’s Lions side a success?
First of all, comes a big part of any Lions tour, the investment. Women’s rugby has seen a dramatic rise in its interest and financial backing in the UK in recent years, but due to COVID-19 funding was cut by 25% by the RFU in October 2020. This is where the partnership of Royal London will be vital. British rugby as a whole has not had the same investment as the likes of football with professional rugby still in its infancy in comparison to ‘the beautiful game’.
Lions tours have required backing from a number of companies, such as HSBC and Standard Chartered, in recent years to succeed as the tours’ costs increase. The worry may stand at whether investors follow Royal London’s example and will take the risk in funding a trip to the Southern Hemisphere.
Another key aid in making a successful tour is having a worthy opponent to face. In 1997, 2009 and 2017, they have faced World champions in their pomp which has given a sense of trying to win a series with their backs against the wall.
There are obvious barriers to a women’s Lions team, the first being how many eligible women’s players have full-time jobs. If the tournament mirrors the men’s, then that’s a long time out of work for many women.
The side could be very England-centric.
— Jessica Hayden (@_JessHayden) March 8, 2021
Women’s rugby is still not entirely professional in a number of countries which asks questions of which opponents would offer the greatest challenge. New Zealand would be the obvious answer as the number one ranked side in world rugby and having had great battles with England over the last decade. However, are there enough opponents to offer sustainability in a quadrennial tour? There is no doubting the quality of the home nations and New Zealand with the likes of Emily Scarratt and Portia Woodman among the world’s best.
And finally, the key aspect in creating a success product. Can a women’s side make a name for themselves without being dependent off the men’s side? A fine example of this is the Lionesses’ capturing the nations imagination as they reached the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup and really got the ball rolling in creating an independent product and increasing support as they hosted Germany with 77,768 at Wembley the following November.
The way in which the series is structured could be altered to appeal to aid this much like the adapted Ashes format in Women’s cricket. This could maybe be in the form of warm up games against other nations such as France or USA, followed by four test series against most likely New Zealand.
It would be fantastic to see women’s rugby continue to grow across the UK but a Lions tour would require a strong revival from the pandemic which could leave a trip south further down the line instead of the near future.