British and Irish Lions stay calm as RFU calendar threatens future tours
By Callum Murray
The British and Irish Lions today stayed calm over plans by England’s Rugby Football Union to introduce a new calendar that appears to threaten the window reserved for future Lions tours, telling Sportcal that they will “continue to speak to all stakeholders to finalise an itinerary well ahead” of the next tour.
The Lions, the combined England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales touring team, were speaking after the RFU announced that its next three domestic seasons, starting from 2019-20, will be stretched into the second half of June.
As a result, the Lions’ next tour to South Africa in 2021 looks set to be squeezed into a five-week window, with no training week separating the end of the English domestic season and the squad’s departure.
Under the new calendar, the 2020 English club season is due to start on 12 September and conclude on 26 June 2021, meaning that the Lions tour will extend into August, with professional rugby being played in every calendar month of the year.
However, the stated aim of the new structure is an improvement in player welfare, with game time reduced and mid-season rests written into the agreement, so England’s Lions players will be handed an enforced break of 10 weeks between the end of the tour and their first game in the new season.
In the wake of last year’s tour of New Zealand, in which the Lions played 10 fixtures in six weeks, John Spencer, the tour manager, was already complaining that the schedule was “not a proper preparation”. He said at the time: “We just cannot let that happen on a future tour,” adding that the Lions risked being forced out of the rugby calendar.
However, the clubs, which wanted to an end to the existing overlaps between international and top-tier Premiership Rugby fixtures, are also not fully satisfied with the calendar, with Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Premier Rugby which governs the league, saying: “Everybody has had to give a bit.”
Under the RFU plan, all players will be guaranteed at least five weeks of rest at the end of the season, while the maximum number of games they will be able to play will be reduced from 32 to 30.
At the time, it was reported that HSBC was willing to pay this amount if its deal included rights to the Lions, but that was rejected. It is unclear if the newly mooted deal includes any Lions rights.