Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Why rugby needs a Womens British and Irish Lions Tour 

Posted on 12 March 2021 by Myles McDevitt

While the powers that be finalise plans for the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour to take place likely in the UK, another question looms. 

Why has it taken so long for discussions of a women’s team?

The Lions are a fascinating concept, with the four unions uniting as one, and now is the time for a women’s game to also have their version of this.

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On Monday, Royal London, Britain’s largest mutual life, pensions and investment company, announced it would fund a study with the view to a women’s team taking shape.

British and Irish Lions, managing director, Ben Calveley said: “The feasibility study is an important first step in determining whether a women’s Lions team could be established, and we are very grateful to have Royal London’s support and investment.”

2021: A step forward or back?

2021 should have been the opportunity for the growth women’s Rugby . The women’s Six Nations, due to COVID-19, will be staged in April and run separately from the Men’s Championship giving the sport its own platform and a chance for the sport to showcase the excellent European talent and there was to be a Rugby World Cup in New Zealand in September and October.

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However, World Rugby have decided to postpone  the World Cup to 2022 and the Six Nations has been shortened with teams only playing three matches. This highlights the difficulties in the women’s game given that the men’s championship has gone full steam ahead with five rounds whilst the women’s competition is shorter.  This should ring alarm bells across the whole sport.

The postponement highlights the problems that women’s rugby is facing. Until the announcement of Monday, it felt as though women’s rugby was being ignored.

The case for a women’s tour

Discussions about a women’s Lions tour need to begin, and quickly, to evolve the Lions concept and ensure it provides equal chances for all who play the game.

A women’s tour should be a no-brainer for those in the British game. We have seen how Lions tours have made superstars out of men across generations. The likes of Barry John, Willie John Mcrbide and  Sam Warburton, to name a few.

Think of the current crop of Premier 15s players. The likes of Jess Breach, Rachael Malcom, Emily Scarrat have blossomed internationally but could add to their rugby legacy by participating in a Lions tour.

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These would be the types of players that could surely be made household names if a women’s tour was to ever occur. More money would be available to the unions and with large crowds, the tour could easily be a great money spinner for all.

It would be the biggest step forward in ensuring equality is at the heart of rugby. 

Men should be better allies

Ugo Monye, who toured with the Lions in South Africa in 2009, is adamant that a women’s Lions tour is needed. Monye believes that before the Lions tour emerging nations the priority should be that a women’s tour comes into existence.

“Men should become the best allies to the women’s rugby game” Monye said.

“I’m trying to be the best ally that I can, I’m trying to learn more about the game, and I think I’m fairly well in tune with it. I think the more people pay attention to it and talk about it will be really helpful.

“We need to promote, shout about the game, tweet about it, support it. Most Premiership teams have a women’s team, but how often will you see the men tweet, ‘Congratulations to Harlequins’ women’, or by the way their game is on at one o’clock tomorrow and this is where you can watch it. That level of interaction is so basic, and it would mean so much.”

It is clear across sport that men need to be better allies for women. For example, English cricket’s new competition The Hundred announced that there would be equal prize money between the mens and women’s competitions. While the Rugby League World Cup 2021 has also said that there would be equal participation fees across the men and women’s tournaments.

However, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women’s sport. In such difficult times, support to women’s sport is desperately needed.

How much progress is being made?

Talks have been minimal but should be ramped up again as this year’s Lions tour hopefully goes ahead.

Considering the success in 2017 of the Women’s World Cup and a Barbarians Women’s team being formed, there would be a lot of support for a women’s Lions tour.

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Welsh winger Jasmine Joyce and England captain Sarah Hunter have commented that the Lions should follow the Barbarians lead and for a Women’s Lions team.

England World Cup winner and flanker, Maggie Alphonsi also tweeted her delight at the news: “A Lions women’s team would be amazing. Just imagine being a young girl growing up and thinking that one day they could wear that red jersey and have the same ambitions as a boy. If this happens, I might have to come out of retirement!”

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It already appears a women’s tour would follow a different route to the men’s tour with likely destinations to being USA and Canada given their strong interest in women’s rugby. 

Another possibility is that the women’s tour is held in New Zealand, after the World Cup, with the Black Fearns regarded as one of the best in world rugby.

Will it ever happen?

The  postponement of the 2021 Rugby World Cup has dampened what could have been a breakout year for women’s rugby. Yet, the announcement by Royal London should bring some much needed positivity to the women’s game in these tough times.

While we all hope there will be Lions matches played in 2021, the calls for a women’s tour must become more audible.

Credit Feature Image: John Walton