A restructuring of the English domestic season was announced last week. Their club season is scheduled to start perhaps one week later in September and won’t finish until late June with two mid-season breaks scheduled.
Most of the headlines focused on the fact that no more than a five-week gap had been set aside for the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in the summer of 2021, which would mean a maximum of seven or eight matches, including the three, lucrative internationals.
Even the last two outings saw ten matches played on each tour over about six/seven weeks. There have even been suggestions that the Lions should make do with one warm up fixture and three Tests, getting the whole thing done and dusted in a record-breaking four weeks.
Concerns that this could prove the death knell of the Lions have been aired by Ian McGeechan.
“I think he’s right,” says former Lions and Scotland skipper Finlay Calder. “I don’t think anyone would dispute that. At the end of the day, it’s an overcrowded market and something has to give.
“Countries will do what is right for their own players, it’s as simple as that. Look at the last tour, someone like [Sam] Warburton has never played again. The toll is huge. Something has to give and if it’s the Lions… well, why should they survive?”
One reason is the Lions’ ability to leverage vast amounts of money from sponsors because they possess a precious rarity value in an otherwise saturated market; New Zealand play Australia three times every year, against the Lions it’s three times every 12 years.
There are plans being hammered out right now that will see South Africa share the spoils of the 2021 tour with Australia and New Zealand in the obvious expectation of reciprocity. And the home unions will almost certainly demand a bigger slice of the pie.
Without the money from Lions’ tours, it is difficult to see how the three Sanzar unions remain afloat. New Zealand is the healthiest and even they posted a £3 million loss in 2016. It is even more difficult to see how they will hold on to their players. South America’s migrant “caravan” could be dwarfed by the streams of players heading to Europe as Super Rugby wages stagnate or even fall.
“But you have to ask the question…is that England’s problem? Is that Wales’ problem? Is that Scotland’s problem?” replies Calder, displaying a ruthless streak that served him well during his playing days.
“It’s like all subsidy, it survives until it’s taken away and then you have to cut your cloth. No one loves the Lions more than me but I am also a pragmatist and if Australia, South Africa and New Zealand are propped up by the Lions’ tours then they need to look at their own [financial] models, it’s as simple as that.
“That’s the rules. You spend what you’ve got. Everyone knows they have been hugely subsidised by the Lions’ tours and if it’s the end of the road, if South Africa is the last one, then so be it.”
Calder explains his stance by drawing a parallel with Stewart’s Melville, his own club, which was relegated a division, had their Murrayfield payments cut and had to make savings.
He may be right but the Lions are such a money-spinning machine that it is difficult to see them fading away without a fight.