BRITISH and Irish Lions tour manager Andy Irvine is confident that the warring factions in the Heineken Cup debate will come together and create a vibrant new competition to suit all nations.
Irvine was speaking to more than 100 people at the Edinburgh Rugby Oldies Society, a social club formed a year ago by Howard Haslett and a group of rugby supporters in the capital. Irvine kicked off the new term of monthly lunches at Inverleith, with Roger Baird and Finlay Calder among other guests lined up this season. He spoke about how the Lions brand has changed, with insight into life behind the scenes on the tour, and called on the home nations to change the season schedule in 2017 to give players a better chance of beating the All Blacks.
But, on the subject of the Heineken Cup debate, he told The Scotsman afterwards: “Like everyone, I think we all hope that the Heineken Cup is saved either in its present format or in a slightly changed format, because it’s such a great competition and a vital one for northern hemisphere rugby.
“I am an optimist and I know that they still seem quite far apart, but the prize is so great that I can’t believe for a minute that common sense won’t prevail. I will be very surprised if they don’t reach some form of agreement and we see a vibrant new Heineken Cup next season.
“It’s a bit like pressing the nuclear button, isn’t it? Everybody will lose if they don’t manage to save it. I’m a believer that those that are involved in the decision-making are good rugby people, whether that’s the people representing the Premiership clubs, the French clubs or the Celtic and Italian clubs, and I’m sure that they all realise what a loss it would be to them and the game up here if they let the Heineken Cup go. But, I think it will go right to the wire.”
Irvine knows most of the leading figures in the negotiations, having worked with rugby administrators on Lions issues ahead of the 2009 and 2013 tours, this year’s having brought only the Lions’ fifth Test series triumph since the Second World War. But he fears the Lions will struggle to repeat the feat in 2017 in New Zealand, where they have won just once, in 1971, unless changes are made to the RaboDirect PRO12 and Aviva Premiership finales.
“There is just too much pressure on players now,” he said. “What has become clear over the last two tours is that they need to have at least two weeks to prepare on these shores, to get together as a squad and understand what they have to do and how they can do it.
“We had 14 players involved in cup finals a week before we played the warm-up match in Hong Kong this time. Leicester had six Lions involved against Northampton in the Premiership final, and Dylan Hartley was ruled out of the tour by his actions in that game, and Leinster and Ulster had a lot of Lions in the Rabo final, which meant boys selected to tour were not necessarily fit for the start of it.
“But to get that proper preparation we will need agreement from the professional clubs in England and the RaboDirect Pro12 to change their scheduling. We are only talking once every four years so I don’t think it’s asking a huge amount.”
In terms of the Lions’ attraction, Irvine is confident that the series win has helped ensure its longevity. “It helped enormously to win the series,” he said, “but even if we lost there would still be 20,000 to 30,000 people following the Lions on the next tour to New Zealand.
“And it’s not just important to our supporters and players. Rod Kafer, the former Wallaby now a TV presenter in Australia, told me it was by far the biggest game that an Australian international could play.
“For us it’s special because it only comes round every four years, but for them the opportunity only comes once every 12 years. Some young talents who emerge in Australia this year may become huge stars but be too old by the time the Lions return there and so never have the chance to face the Lions.
“Kafer said that, as big as their rivalry with New Zealand is, they now play them three times a year. Richie McCaw has played Australia 31 times and South Africa 21 times, but played the Lions just twice. That is what makes the Lions special for these guys, and of course the Lions brings these countries a huge amount of money so they want us touring and that’s why I think the next tour to New Zealand will again set records.”
He added: “I want us to be going there with a chance of winning a Test series for the first time since 1971, so we need to work with clubs across the four nations and the competition organisers over the next two years to try and give our players a real opportunity in 2017.”