Now that Warren Gatland has been named head coach of the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia next year, attention turns to which players will be selected for the team. Based on current form there is definitely a group of players out there that should be in contention. Chris Ben Youngs, Toby Flood, Richie Gray, James Hook, Alex Cuthbert, George North, Leigh Halfpenny, and Cian Healy all look to be good choices. Gatland could even bring in the likes of a Tim Visser or other young players without a lot of experience with any of the home unions. Essentially, Gatland has an embarrassing amount of talent to work with.
However, earlier this week Gatland issued a warning that players in France may miss out on the tour. The problem is timing. Next year’s tour starts on Saturday, June 1st when the Lions play the Barbarians in Hong Kong, a match that takes place before the international window begins. The fact that the match is before the international window isn’t a problem for the players in the Aviva Premiership or the RaboDirect Pro12 because those competitions would have already finished. In fact, players not in the final will have had a couple of weeks rest by the time the Lions tour begins. The main difficulty is that the Top 14 final is the same day as the match against the Barbarians and any player making the final could miss out on the tour. Gatland essentially said that it would be difficult for a player to make the touring squad without leaving his club early, pointing out that Nathan Hines left Perpignan early to participate in 2009.
In years past this wouldn’t have been much of a problem because most players remained in the British Isles. But with the influx of top players, especially from Wales, heading to France, some of the top prospective Lions could miss the tour. Imagine what the Lions squad would look like sans Hines, Lee Byrne (both Clermont), Steffon Armitage (Toulon), Luke Narraway, and James Hook (both Perpignan). It would only be shell of itself and could struggle even more to top a top-three team in the world.
To force these top players into choosing between club and country is hardly fair, especially considering that it was the spending habits of the home unions that drove them to France in the first place. It’s no secret that teams in France can, and often do, spend more money than teams in the British Isles. There are plenty of reasons for that disparity, such as a larger population base, well-attended matches, and a willingness to go into debt. The home unions should be concerned about running into too much debt and bankrupting teams (one just has to look at the saga of Wasps to see that situation), but the home unions know what the situation is like and it would be difficult to ask a player to take less money to stay at home to go on a month-long tour.
The Lions are offering nice financial incentives for players to participate, but even that may not be enough. According to the Daily Telegraph, players will receive a fee of £45k just for going on the tour and £67k if they win all their matches. This is apparently an 18% increase over what the players received in 2009 and double what they received in 2005. That’s a nice thought for the players that provide the product for the home unions, but when you consider that a player could give up more than that by jeopardizing his place with his French club, it hardly seems worth it. Plus, even though the tour will cost a lot of money to produce (reportedly £14 million), at the same time it’s going to bring in revenue. The Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005 was the largest sporting event that country had seen until the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The point is that the home unions are going to be making money off the tour or else they wouldn’t undertake such an expensive event, and maybe some of that money would be wisely spent back into player salaries.
Unfortunately for the home unions, that is just the reality of the situation. Players from the British Isles playing in France shouldn’t be forced to choose between a great honor like playing for the Lions and maximizing their value as an athlete. One of the great things about rugby is that the top players are well paid, but when comparing them to players in the English Premier League, the N.F.L. or NBA, they hardly make any money. So you can’t really blame players for wanting to maximize their earning potential while they are at the top of their physical peak. You have to ask, if you were one of the players in question, would you give up a payday for what is essential three tests against Australia and then a series of friendlies against Australian Super Rugby clubs?
Maybe the answer for the Lions is as simple as a schedule change or a reduction in matches. Ten matches is a lot in just a little over a month. Sure, it’s easy to understand that more matches are going to be more appealing to fans, sponsors, and television producers, but it is also going to increase the costs, and as we’ve seen, cause scheduling conflicts. If the Lions reduced the tour by two or three games then the scheduling would not be a factor. Further, even moving back the tour by two weeks, to be more in line with the international window, would fix the problem. Gatland lamented earlier this week that even disregarding the scheduling conflict with the France-based players, he would still not have much time to train with the team ahead of their match with the Barbarians. It’s definitely tempting to get as much out of a once-every-four-year product like the Lions, but maybe the traditional tour by the team doesn’t make as much sense anymore.
In reality, the only way around this problem is for the IRB to step in. Because the Lions tour involves international test matches, as well as individual clubs from other countries, only the jurisdiction of the IRB will solve the problem. The IRB has already set a defined international window and they need to enforce that window. Also, for the sake of the players’ health, they should step in a set a limit on the number of matches that can be played in a certain timeframe. If they were to do so, the Lions would likely move their tour back, avoiding the scheduling conflict with players in France.
In the end, everything is still going to work out and the Lions are going to have a fantastic tour that the players and fans will equally enjoy. There will be drama over the next year as situations get worked out (Toulon boss Bernard Laporte already said he won’t release players) but in the end they will get worked out. With or without the France-based players in the lineup, the Lions are going to play to full stadiums and big television audiences. Still, it would be nice if common-sense prevailed and the whole situation was avoided.
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