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For a women’s Lions Tour to work it must be different to what we know

Johnny Watterson: Just mirroring men’s concept not really an option that can succeed

Feeling iffy about a women’s Lions Tour? Okay, okay. OKAY. But let’s give it a chance. The name alone, though. Already shades of a facsimile of the men’s equivalent looms large. That would be the first fatal error.

Okay, okay. OKAY. Surely the first question ought to be whether a Lions tour is a Lions tour if it’s not as it always has been, exclusively made up of British and Irish players.

For the first March to November, million match Tour in 1888 (35 actually), England provided the bulk of the touring squad along with Welshman Richie Thomas, Alex Laing, Robert and William Burnet from Scotland and Belfast-born Arthur Paul.

A lusty mix of brothers has been the unchanging legacy through the decades. Some people get the concept and adore it, others see it as a frontier relic from amateur years. What is undisputed is that in the modern era, the Lions tour has been hugely popular and lucrative.


It is doubtful that depth of talent is available to the women's game in New Zealand or North America

The guess is, nobody really knows what rugby means by a woman’s Lions tour except from the name and what has gone before with the men.

The organisers would have to ask, why travel to Bloemfontein to plant the flag. Croagh Patrick, not Everest. The South African women's team is ranked 13th in the world. That is lower than Spain (10th), lower than Italy (7th), lower than France (4th), lower than Ireland, Scotland, Wales and lower than the world's top side, England. If there is going to be a Lions tour, a better fit is New Zealand (2nd) or North America where Canada (3rd) and USA (6th) are stronger at world level than their national male equivalents.

Another challenge is whether the matches that fill the touring schedule and provide television time outside of the Test matches would have meaning. It is a legitimate concern and unlikely if there are enough elite women’s clubs or provincial sides to fulfil fixtures midweek.

This summer in the men's trip south, the non-Test match midweek teams did not have meaningful opposition, the game against South Africa 'A' an exception. The Springboks were also forced to put their shoulder to the wheel and play for their clubs to make the non-Test match games credible contests.

It is doubtful that depth of talent is available to the women’s game in New Zealand or North America. If not, then how to make it different from a northern hemisphere team going on a regular tour is the question.

From a selection point of view you would also wonder how professional England would react if their players are overlooked because selectors, coaches and sponsors feel they need representation from all of the nations. It would not look so ‘Leonine’ without Irish, Scottish or Welsh picks.

But there is also another important thread to keep alive. The Lions tour grew out of a colonial mindset and was played against former British colonies, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and to do that they constructed a team with a fictional identity and character.

It was proudly exclusive and even when the world had moved on and began to boycott South Africa because of their apartheid policies, the Lions kept touring. It was in their foundational DNA.

The concern is, rather than embrace a modern twist on the concept, which might involve the best of Spanish, Italian and French players, the stellar cast of 13 administrators, business executives, former players and coaches will try and repeat old traditions, which let’s not kid ourselves, sprang from an impulse of the ‘lads’ to re-conquer the largely whites only rump of the rugby playing empire.

In 1891, there is a record of an attempt at a women's touring team in New Zealand. This was stopped due to a lack of social acceptance and the team was forced to disband. It was in 1917 that the first official charity match at Cardiff Arms Park featuring female teams, Cardiff Ladies and Newport Ladies, was documented.

The point is that given the journey of rugby women, maybe inclusion not exclusion should be a guiding principle in any iteration of a tour since eyes have opened. Without getting bogged down in identity, most of the Irish team is comprised of European women with modern European ideals and sensibilities.

Should they not include their European sisters and lean towards making it a continental side and more of a Ryder Cup team, which was originally Britain and Ireland, or, a Solheim Cup side? They can still call themselves the Lions.

Apart from slavishly mirroring the men, why form a non-European alliance every four years, which excludes the best women players from Spain, France or Italy, to go on a tour that sprung from British 19th century thinking in which women held little or no importance?

We will wait with interest on word from former Welsh great and male chairman (‘o fy nuw’ as they say in Wales) Ieuan Evans and his crusaders. If the slipper fits, let’s ball every four years.

But the issue is what shape it should take, whether it should have any resemblance to the men’s version except in name. If it does look like a male Lion and walk like a male Lion, it may not receive a hallelujah acceptance.

Okay, okay. Okay. Less negativity. Alternatively, re-imagine the Lions. Be bold, modern, embracing. Let’s avoid a Victorian look in the 21st century.