Prospect of women’s Lions team moves one step closer

Ireland’s Claire Molloy believes touring North America would make most sense

 Ireland’s Claire Molloy says North America would provide ‘a point of difference in terms of uniqueness’ for a Lions tour. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ireland’s Claire Molloy says North America would provide ‘a point of difference in terms of uniqueness’ for a Lions tour. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

The concept of a women’s Lions rugby team represents a natural progression in the evolution of the sport among the four Home Unions and the attraction for players is obvious across a variety of strands, a statement with which Ireland’s Claire Molloy identifies.

The idea was first mooted in 2019 but this month it went from the abstract to a more concrete footing when Royal London Insurance DAC agreed to become the principal partner of the Women’s Lions Programme and fund a feasibility study into the project. It will be completed by the end of the year.

There are plenty of obstacles: finding a place in a global calendar, the current discrepancy between the putative Lions constituents, the England players who are contracted professionals compared to largely amateur status of the Wales, Scotland and Ireland players and destinations for a potential tour. Women’s rugby has been clambering over barriers from the year dot; they won’t be fazed by the challenge.

While there would be many elements that would mimic the men’s Lions tours, there would need to be points of difference, particularly in terms of the host countries. South Africa, in particular, and Australia are not as strong in the women’s game relatively speaking, with only New Zealand being able to offer the depth of quality in opposition terms that a Lions tour would demand.

Touring to North America would make more sense, given the strength of American and Canadian women’s rugby. Molloy, who will be back in Ireland training camp this weekend and next in preparation for the upcoming Six Nations matches against Wales and France, said: “Looking at the make-up of women’s rugby, the North Americans have always been strong with USA and Canada fielding strong outfits.

Captured imagination

“We have seen that in the summer series for the last few years. They are ahead of their male counterparts. They could [offer] a point of difference in terms of uniqueness [for a Lions tour].” She accepted that New Zealand was a logical destination given the strength of the national side but also with the quality of teams in the domestic league, the Farah Palmer Cup.

As a concept it has captured the imagination of the players and while the specifics of when and where it would fit in the global calendar would require greater investigation, it’s already kick-started conversation as to the likely make-up of a Lions squad.

Molloy elaborated: “Like the men what would the dream combinations be? How would you pick [between] Cliodhna Moloney, the in-form hooker for Ireland over the last few years, a standout player, and Amy Cokayne or Lark Davies. What about exciting fullbacks Chloe Rollie, Jazz Joyce from Wales and Ellie Kildunne?

A mini version of the Lions concept is already being played out in the Women’s English Premiership with players from Scotland, Wales and Ireland playing with clubs like Loughborough Lightning, Saracens, Wasps, Gloucester and Bristol to highlight a few.

The integrity of touring, bonding on and off the pitch would be an important component. Molloy enjoyed a brief flavour when playing for the Barbarians, where the men’s and women’s squads spent time together. “It was such a special experience and that’s what these [Lions] tours need to be, the icing on the cake of an international career, a highlight to look back at. It should be the exact same experience for the women as it would for the men.”

Commitment

England have been to the forefront of developing the women’s game and with a commitment from World Rugby to two fixture windows in the year, the sport is taking on a more professional hue. Molloy explained: “That’s part of the progression, where the game has to go. Seeing a major commercial partner invest in that and identify that as a barrier to the progression of the women’s game is really important.

“Where players are at the moment, yeah, we are amateur on paper [but] we are professional in our time management and how we are managing our lives. There are a vast number of Irish, Scottish and Welsh players who have reduced their working week, changed their jobs [or roles] to allow them to train more full time.

“We are seeing that in the commitment. The sacrifices that the club player is making just to be able to train, gym, do the analysis; the professionalism is coming, it may not be on paper but players are making the moves already. It’s time for the unions to catch up with their support.”

Quite obviously there is a will for a Women’s Lions tour; all that’s left is to find the way.

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