The autumn internationals finished last weekend. It appeared to represent a passing of the torch in women’s rugby.
England and France both managed historic back-to-back victories over New Zealand. In the four games New Zealand conceded 166 points. It was a humiliation.
Victory against England in the first game would have saw the Black Ferns regain the No. 1 rank, but the gap in quality was immediately apparent.
Fullback Ellie Kildunne made 11 carries that game. Nine of them were in New Zealand’s half.
The question now for the Black Ferns is not whether they can reclaim the top spot from England, but if they can stay second. With the World Cup next year, the balance of power very much shifted north.
The autumn internationals also raise further questions about a potential women’s Lions tour.
What does this mean for a women’s Lions Tour?
Women’s rugby being at a different stage to the men’s game already causes issues. That is why, rather than simply launching it, a committee was set up in October to look at how it would work.
Then there’s the fact that the nations that are toured- Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa- are significantly better in men’s rugby.
Since the World Rugby rankings began in 2003, there has not been a Lions tour where any of the Home nations were ranked higher than the country they were touring.
This works to the Tour’s benefit, as combining four top-10 nations should make a very strong team. This has made the tours competitive, with only one whitewash since it became professional in 1997.
The strength of England currently means a women’s Lions Tour won’t be as competitive.
The Red Roses have been No. 1 ranked side since 15th November 2020. This stint alone has been longer than the time the Home Nations in men’s rugby have ever spent at the top combined.
If a women’s Lions tour operated the same way as the men’s, the games would be a mismatch. And New Zealand are the best of the three traditional opponents.
Going by the gap in points, England Women (96.26) playing Australia (78.68) and South Africa (63.39) would be equivalent to England Men (87.83) playing Italy (70.51) and Belgium (54.86).
Such mismatches in quality do not make the best spectacle for fans. One of the suggestions to fix this was inviting France to join the Lions.
Following these autumn internationals though, the thought of the two best countries teaming up, and facing sides they can already comfortably beat individually, sounds cruel.
What are the alternatives?
Of course, the idea of a women’s Lions Tour is not just for fans. For the players, a Lions Tour presents a once in a lifetime experience.
For the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish players, if quotas are put in place, the case can be made that playing for and against the best teams would only help them improve as players.
That is the argument behind the WXV, a competition launched by World Rugby, with the purpose of giving national teams fixed schedules between World Cups, which will start in 2023.
However, many players are already playing with and against the best. Everyone who featured for Wales this November play in the Premier 15s, the top league in England. For Ireland and Scotland, it’s around 25% and 60%.
In the Premier 15s and the Elite 1, England and France have the best domestic leagues in the world, and it is benefitting their national teams.
New Zealand could not cope England and France’s physically, a product of not playing as much high-quality matches.
But this is not only impacting their national teams. It is also improving other national sides. Perhaps with one eye on preparing for the World Cup next year, players from all over the world are flocking to these leagues.
As the graphic above shows, when we look at the highest ranked sides to play international tests this month, even when those playing for England and France are not included, more than 50% play in the Premier 15s or Elite 1.
The best way to improve the quality of the home nations appears to be through club level, and I think the next step there would be to see some form of European competition.
European club competition: the benefits of a Lions tour with none of the drawbacks?
Fans still have the opportunity to travel across Europe with their team, and players get more high-level matches.
Furthermore, the idea of an European club competition appears better suited to the women’s game, as the European countries beyond Britain and France are more competitive.
Italy and Spain are both top 10 ranked countries in the world, and in World Cup qualifiers beat Scotland and Ireland respectively.
There will be challenges, such as creating a schedule that works for clubs and national teams, and ensuring that there’s enough funding to ensure that clubs and players can afford to travel across Europe.
But these can be overcome. Women’s rugby can look to football, where the women’s Champions league has managed to grow without, until recently, the teams involved being fully professional.
It is a good time for women’s rugby to do this, as the sport is growing rapidly. This weekend alone saw the Premier 15s agree a broadcasting deal with the BBC, and over 29,000 people came to Twickenham to watch the Barbarians beat South Africa, a record for women’s rugby.
The success of the Barbarians, an invitational team made up of players from across the world, will perhaps lead to more intense calls for a Lions Tour.
However, at the moment, if you want to have the best players from different countries play with and against each other, it makes better sense to go down the club route.
The Premier 15s and Elite 1 are currently more international, and more competitive than potential Lions Tour.