Lions' future on line over plan to shorten tours

The British and Irish Lions could become a “dead concept” if they are subjected to “insane” plans to reduce the number of games and length of future tours and fail to build in adequate preparation time, senior officials claimed on Thursday night.

With expectation and excitement building ahead of Saturday’s first Test, leading figures have delivered a sobering verdict on the Lions’ future with warnings that the entire structure could be “killed off”.

Moves to reduce future tours from 10 to eight games and six to five weeks were described as “madness” by John Spencer, a Lions board member and manager of the tour in New Zealand. Spencer, who was assaulted by a drunk man in an Auckland restaurant this week, warned that coaches and players would turn their backs on the Lions because of the impossibility of the task they faced and the threats to welfare.

The next three-tour cycle of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand has been agreed in principle with a minimum of eight games, as part of the new global calendar from 2019 announced by World Rugby in March. However, negotiations between stakeholders to determine the details of the Lions tours from 2021 are ongoing and there is pressure from clubs, particularly in England, to shorten the length of the Lions tour to five weeks, a schedule that officials fear would make the concept untenable. They believe a two-week preparation time is the minimum requirement.

“If they take a couple of matches away from us, all coaches think that is madness, bordering on insanity – voluntary insanity,” Spencer told The Daily Telegraph. “If we are not careful with preparation I think the Lions could be a dead concept.

“The clubs would be killing it by demanding extra things every tour – shorter tours, fewer matches, less preparation. Meanwhile, with one fewer match before the first Test, the Lions would come under incredible pressure from the host nation.

john spencer
John Spencer says the proposed changes are “boarding on insanity” CREDIT: GETTY IMAES

“It is easy to say ‘don’t play the midweek matches’ but how do we prepare? Our tour has to have moral force. We need to engage with the community, be respectful and we need to go away with a level of

integrity and unless we provide meaningful opposition you just cannot do it.”

There is huge frustration in the current Lions management that they were forced to play their opening game, against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians, only three days after their long-haul flight from London because of the refusal of clubs to shift their domestic finals. The controversy of the the six call-ups this week is further evidence of the challenging schedule.