The British and Irish Lions’ plans to host a test match against a top international side at Twickenham in preparation for their 2021 tour of South Africa is being met with backlash by Premiership clubs.
According to a report from the Daily Telegraph, the fixture would generate £10?million in ticket sales, sponsorship and broadcasting rights for the Rugby Football Union to use as a financial incentive to help persuade Premiership clubs to release players early for the warm-up match prior to the tour.
The calls for such a fixture comes less than two years after the Lions’ chaotic start to the 2017 tour of New Zealand, where they arrived three days before their first clash against a Provincial Barbarians team.
Pro14 clubs have confirmed they are prepared to bring their competition’s final a week forward in 2021 to allow British and Irish Lions players an extra week to be with the squad, but Premiership Rugby have not been as lenient.
The Lions’ first match in South Africa will kick-off on 3 July, scheduled one week after the Premiership final.
This has led to Premiership officials unwilling to alter its domestic campaign in Lions tour seasons following to the San Francisco agreement for the new global season structure agreed in January 2017.
Adding to the Lions’ scheduling difficulties is the confirmation by the Six Nations on Wednesday that the competition would remain a seven-week tournament in 2021, despite notions from RFU interim chief executive Nigel Melville to reduce the tournament’s length to six weeks in a bid to enhance the Lions’ chance of success.
It is understood the Lions believe their potential one-off fixture in London would garner enough revenue to cover the majority of costs of a condensed five-week, eight-match tour of South Africa – thus providing a greater financial return for the Home Unions – but it would also be enough for the RFU to “buy off” the Premiership clubs to slim their season by a week.
“The unions all need money and this game could raise a lot of funds and also allow the RFU to give a cash incentive to persuade the English clubs to bring their final forward, which will give the Lions more preparation time,” a source close to the negotiations told the Telegraph.
The Premiership, however, have remained staunch on the issue.
“As far we are concerned we are operating within the 2017 San Francisco agreement and we believe that and have been told that the Lions are doing so as well, so this is news to me,” Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty said.
McCafferty also identified player welfare as an issue, and said Premiership Rugby has been working with Lions officials to reduce the number of short turnarounds on Lions tours, with traditional midweek fixtures highlighted as being irrelevant in the context of player welfare.
However, the Telegraph reports that senior Lions figures are concerned that the reduction of the South Africa tour to eight games in five weeks, as opposed to their traditional 10-game, six-week schedule, would reduce their competitiveness.
A Lions spokesperson did not deny the Twickenham fixture was being contemplated, but said the onus was firmly on the eight-game tour of South Africa under the San Francisco agreement.
The match would be the first Lions match to be held in England since the first officially sanctioned home match against the Barbarians at Twickenham in September 1977.
Only three sanctioned Lions matches have been held within the UK and Ireland, with the last of those coming in May 2005 when the Lions played out a 25-25 draw with Argentina ahead of their unsuccessful tour of New Zealand.
Sources told the Telegraph the Stade de France in Paris has also been discussed as a potential venue for the fixture, with France and Argentina both under consideration to partake in the match.
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