Last week was a dark one for women, full of sexism, anger, and fear, bookended by International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day. In a week of contemplation about women’s issues, Royal London (investments and pensions provider) and the British and Irish Lions announced the launch of a ‘feasibility study’ into the possibility of a British and Irish Lions women’s team.
A consultation is needed due to the disparity between the professional structure of England, compared to amateur Ireland, Scotland and Wales. To be clear, although the national teams are amateur, some players from these countries have semi-professional contracts for the clubs they play for in the Premier 15s. Some Scotland players also have semi-professional central contracts with Scotland, but the vast majority of the non-England players eligible for the British and Irish Lions are amateur.
This means that many have full-time jobs, and some already use all their annual leave to play in the Women’s Six Nations or a Rugby World Cup. Many are travelling across borders to play in the Premier 15s every week, often for no money or for very little. As I wrote last week, many are now being told that their club will not cover their medical insurance, meaning players have been left to crowdfund for surgery following an injury sustained while playing for their club.
When women’s rugby is having a down moment – as it has felt at times in the past few weeks due to social media abuse and investment concerns – it’s almost depressing that a feasibility study should be announced on International Women’s Day. My first thought was ‘really? This is where investment is going?’ and I wondered if this was a publicity stunt for International Women’s Day.
It’s also not a new idea. In 2001, a group of women’s players tried to organise a tour while the men toured Australia, in agreement that they would pay for their own travel and expenses. Eventually it was called off due to not having enough referees to officiate it.
I spoke to Susie Logan, chief marketing officer at Royal London, the company who will sponsor the feasibility study. “These conversations with the Lions have been taking place since last summer, and the announcement was not planned around International Women’s Day,” Logan said. “It was kind of the other way round. A lot of work has gone into this before we decided to announce it.”
The study, which is currently underway, will consult rugby, media, and commercial experts to work out the best way a women’s side could be launched. Plus, Logan assures me, women’s players will be included in the discussions. The recommendation of the study is expected by the end of 2021.
The key questions that need answering are who the women would play, when it would happen, and how players could be supported to go on such a tour.
Let’s start with who the Women’s British and Irish Lions teams could play and when it could happen. One idea is for the tour to exactly mirror the men’s tour. This would mean the women touring alongside the men, playing the same Test matches, and potentially playing domestic sides along the way, like the men do, if possible. In this model, it could be expected that the women would play before the men in double-headers.
There are positives to this idea, as it would give the women more exposure from men’s rugby fans, widening the audience for women’s rugby, and it could mean the women play in front of packed stadiums of Lions fans. The Barbarians have used this model, and it’s been a nice way to get women’s rugby in front of wider audiences. I enjoyed the extra attention the women got from the game, and fans sitting near me at both double headers I’ve been to seemed to want to learn about the players.
This would mean the women play against New Zealand’s Black Ferns, South Africa, and Australia. New Zealand would be a fantastic series and would undoubtedly be the hardest test for a British and Irish side. South Africa have recently invested more into their women’s programme and show promising signs of growth – but would they provide decent competition to a women’s side? Not now, but maybe in the future. Australia is a good side – fifth in the world rankings – but again, it’s unlikely they would beat a British and Irish side.
I’m not adamantly against this idea, but I think we can do better. Does exposure come at the cost of the best possible women’s tour? With this suggestion, yes it does. Plus, what does exposure gain for women’s rugby in the long term? As a freelancer, I speak from experience when I say exposure doesn’t pay bills. If a women’s tour came with investment for the home nations then that would be a start, but these are all details which are yet to be ironed out.
My preference would be a tour that suits the women’s game, with the Lions playing the best countries available. I would love to see a women’s British and Irish Lions side play New Zealand, USA, and Canada. These are all nations who support women’s sport, and the home fans might follow the women’s game closely. It could lead to a more genuine support for the women’s game, rather than men’s Lions fans who will just watch the women because a game is on. I also worry that tickets would be so expensive if women’s fans had to pay for both the double headers. It could put women’s fans off touring, as a Lions tour ticket can be extortionately expensive. If fans just have to pay for the women’s games, then it would be more accessible to a larger group of fans.
The next question is which players would go and how could they be supported? If the tour was this year (forgetting for one blissful moment that both coronavirus exists, and the endless commentary on where the men’s tour will be held), then realistically only England players could go. Potentially, a few non-English players who are self-employed and can afford to take time away from work, or those who have decent employers, could also go. The men tour for five-to-six weeks, which means many women would have to be away from their work for that time.
The other reason why the squad could be predominantly English is that 28 England players have full-time professional contracts, which not only means the team has access to a truly professional coaching set up, but they’re also guaranteed medical insurance and the ability to rest after match days. They also likely don’t have to travel too far to play for their club. On the other hand, some Irish players have to relocate to England to play in the Premier 15s (by far the most competitive and highest standard of women’s rugby in the UK or Ireland), and Welsh and Scottish players either relocate or make the long trips to their clubs for training and matches. They often have to work the next day, even after international fixtures.
— Royal London (@RoyalLondon) March 8, 2021
The stress of being an amateur international women’s rugby player cannot be underestimated – it’s a challenge not many know; travelling for hours a week to play for their club and country, with some not receiving a penny and also having to buy their own medical insurance. It’s so tough and why I hate having to call them ‘amateur’.
I’ve said this before, but it feels worth reiterating: it’s not the RFU’s responsibility to fund the women’s game across the whole of Britain and Ireland. We are far off any similar type of investment from Wales, Scotland, or Ireland. There’s progress and investment, but just not near the scale of England.
We are currently speaking in hypotheticals of course, but it is such a shame that we are still having these conversations, and that the reality of a women’s Lions tour is so bogged down in the same issues we have been discussing for years: a lack of investment and a huge difference between the teams whose unions invest (England, France and New Zealand) and the rest of the world. Money is tight for all unions at the moment, and there is no endless pot of money to invest here. Companies like Royal London are doing the socially responsible thing in investing in this study – credit where credit is due. As former England player Catherine Spencer said to me the other day, it’s a chicken and egg situation. Investment is needed, but it seems to be held back until the game develops.
British and Irish Women's Lions Tour idea takes a major step forward
— Scrumqueens – Women’s Rugby (@ScrumQueens) March 8, 2021
I applaud companies like Royal London who notice that not only is this investment the right thing to do, it’s also a brilliant idea. Pre-pandemic, women’s rugby was fast growing both in participation numbers and those who watch the game. Similarly, the number of people who have been watching the Premier 15s has grown this season. I hope that I’ll be able to write about record-breaking viewing figures for the Women’s Six Nations soon too.
As the study decides whether a tour is possible or when/who it would be against, it’s a good time to look at how other sports have achieved return on investment. I specifically refer to football and cricket, where the women’s tournaments often stand away from the men’s. The Women’s Six Nations this year is a good chance to test if women’s rugby can stand on its own two feet, and I’m sure the British and Irish Lions will be watching closely.
If you support the idea of a women’s Lions tour, or women’s rugby in general, undoubtedly one of the best things you can do is watch the Women’s Six Nations. Watching it adds a number to the viewing figures and shows that there is a huge market for women’s rugby. That’s what I’ll be doing.
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