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Why the world needs a reverse Lions tour

By Daniel Gallan
Cape Town , South Africa - 24 July 2021; South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus speaks to his players during the first test of the British and Irish Lions tour match between South Africa and British and Irish Lions at Cape Town Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo By Ashley Vlotman/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

There’s nothing like a British & Irish Lions tour. Since 1888 the so-called Home Nations have set forth to conquer the Antipodes, Argentina and Southern Africa. It’s a rich narrative, one filled with stirring speeches, heroic deeds and a 39.47% winning record across 38 series against the Rugby Championship sides.

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Critics will call it an anachronism, an out-dated concept born in an imperial and amateur age. Those critics be damned. Rugby is undoubtedly a richer sport for it. Not convinced? Pieter-Steph du Toit, winner of two World Cups, said beating the Lions series was on par with lifting the Webb Ellis Cup.

Jim Telfer, a veteran of two tours as a coach, likened the challenge to climbing Mount Everest. Sam Warburton, a double Six Nations grand-slam champion, said that taking part was the “pinnacle of any player’s career”. There really is nothing else like it.

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North vs South: Rhys Patchell on the difference he sees since playing in NZ

Welsh fly-half Rhys Patchell weighs in on the differences between playing for the Scarlets back home and where he is playing now, with the Highlanders in New Zealand

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North vs South: Rhys Patchell on the difference he sees since playing in NZ

Welsh fly-half Rhys Patchell weighs in on the differences between playing for the Scarlets back home and where he is playing now, with the Highlanders in New Zealand

But what if there was something else? Something that could match the prestige and appeal of a Lions tour and begin to write its own storied tale? What if there was a way that the rugby gods and those who fund them could find a way of gathering the might of the southern hemisphere and unleash it upon Europe every four years?

It would certainly add value. Test rugby demands context and beyond the Rugby Championship and Six Nations there is little of it outside of World Cups and Lions tours. Mid-year series have been reduced to two-Test morsels to accommodate developing nations and end of year tours, now dubbed the Autumn Nations Series to give those games a fabricated gravitas, have lost some of their sheen.

The Springboks and All Blacks have recognised this waning across the board which is why they’re considering playing each other more often. An injection of something new is needed and a Lions-esque tour in the opposite direction would shake up rugby’s landscape.

But when would it take place? The World Cup is sacrosanct and can’t be moved from its four-year cycle. The same applies for the Lions tour which means this new series would have to slot in either side of the World Cup. It couldn’t go in the year before. The 18 month run-in towards the World Cup is paramount for coaches who are fine-tuning their squads.

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Which means it would have to go in just after; 2028 if we were to get going as soon as possible.

With respect to Ireland’s impending victory, the Six Nations championship immediately after a World Cup is arguably the most forgettable. Even Antoine Dupont couldn’t be bothered with this one. Ditto for the Rugby Championship. No Springboks fan will care one bit if South Africa don’t claim the title and All Blacks supporters will find little consolation in a triumphant campaign. But a homogenous tour of Europe, one that might compel players to stave off retirement for another 12 months to take part in something unique? Now that has marketability written all over it.

So, who would they play? Because there are six teams in the aptly named Six Nations, touring them individually wouldn’t do. That would mean, for example, a visit to England every 24 years. So, in order to make this work, European sides would have to share the load and each play two Tests against the tourists and provide a domestic team for a midweek clash.

As members of the oldest rivalry on the planet, Scotland and England can join forces. Wales and Ireland could unite under a Celtic banner while France and Italy, as representatives of the European mainland, could play together. Remember, this does not mean that these nations would play as one team. Instead they’d play two Tests each against the four-headed beast from the south.

Here’s how that might look: Glasgow Warriors could get us going with a midweek game before a historic first-ever Test at Celtic Park. Edinburgh would have a dip the week after with Murrayfield closing out the Scotland leg of the tour. Next a composite northern England team – coached, of course, by Steve Diamond – would play on the Wednesday night ahead of the first Test against Steve Borthwick’s men at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester.

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The circus would move south where a Saracens-laden southern England team would provide one final tune-up before the final Test at Twickenham.

Four Tests. Two host nations. One epic month.

Four years later it would be the turn of Wales and Ireland and four years after that we’d head to Italy and France. Some challenges would be easier than others but that is true already for Lions tours. Does anyone actually think that Joe Schmidt’s Wallabies have a chance next year?

The team’s colours would comprise the four representatives with light blue, black, gold and bottle green all mashed together in a Harlequins-style kit. Given there are just two apex predators found at all four locations, the name of this team can be decided by a binary referendum. Are they the Southern Hemisphere Sharks or the Southern Hemisphere Falcons? Personally I prefer the Falcons.

Of course this would create a logistical headache for those tasked with organising the thing. Where would they train before the tour? Would the South African government insist on racially motivated selection targets? Would enough fans from Argentina turn up? Would any All Black loose forward provide the requisite protection for Nic White?

Then there’s the small matter of convincing national boards to relinquish their income. If Siya Kolisi, Beauden Barrett, Rob Valetini and Julian Montoya are in France and Italy, that means all Home Nations would have to make do with a diluted end to the year. This could provide a chance for the Pacific Island Nations, as well as a handful of tier-two teams to fill the gap and raise their standard. But there’d be no doubt certain unions would take a financial hit. Universal buy-in would be required to get this off the ground and that’s only after we’ve agreed on how the revenue will be distributed.

With all those caveats I have no doubt that this would be an incredible addition to the rugby ecosystem. Do I think it will happen? No, of course not. The calendar is already stacked and wedging in something so monstrously complex could cause the game to tear apart at the seams. But, if some administrative genius out there is reading this and likes the idea, it’s all yours.

TEAM SELECTION

Following Warren Gatland’s lead, I’ve selected a squad of 37 with a starting match-day 23 named for the opening Test. A few All Blacks who aren’t technically eligible for New Zealand duty have been included, but those who have formally retired, such as Aaron Smith, aren’t part of the mix.

As the reigning world champions and the number one side in the world, the Springboks dominate with Kolisi captaining the side and Rassie Erasmus taking over as head coach.

Southern Hemisphere Falcons:

15: Beauden Barrett (New Zealand)

14: Will Jordan (New Zealand)

13: Lukhanyo Am (South Africa)

12: Samu Kerevi (Australia)

11: Cheslin Kolbe (South Africa)

10: Richie Mo’Unga (New Zealand)

9: Faf de Klerk (South Africa)

1: Steven Kitshoff (South Africa)

2: Malcolm Marx (South Africa)

3: Frans Malherbe (South Africa)

4: Eben Etzebeth (South Africa)

5: Scott Barrett (New Zealand)

6: Siya Kolisi – captain (South Africa)

7: Pieter-Steph du Toit (South Africa)

8: Ardie Savea (New Zealand)

16: Codie Taylor (New Zealand)

17: Ethan de Groot (New Zealand)

18: Taniela Tupou (Australia)

19: Franco Mostert (South Africa)

20: Rob Valetini (Australia)

21: Finlay Christie (New Zealand)

22: Jordie Barrett (New Zealand)

23: Damian Willemse (South Africa)

Reserves:

Hooker: Julian Montoya (Argentina); Bongi Mbonambi (South Africa)

Prop: Ox Nche (South Africa); Tyrel Lomax (New Zealand)

Second-row: Will Skelton (Australia); RG Snyman (South Africa), Tomas Lavanini (Argentina)

Back-row: Pablo Matera (Argentina); Marcos Kremer (Argentina)

Scrum-half: Nic White (Australia)

Fly-half: Handre Pollard (South Africa)

Centre: Rieko Ioane (New Zealand); Damian de Allende (South Africa)

Utility back: Damian McKenzie (New Zealand).

Head coach: Rassie Erasmus.

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