The future of the British and Irish Lions: squeezed by clubs but still rugby’s precious pinnacle

One of the sport's most revered institutions is under pressure from several angles. Can it continue to thrive after the South Africa tour?

The future of the British and Irish Lions: squeezed by clubs but still rugby’s precious pinnacle
The Lions continues to captivate, but challenges lie ahead

On the evening before the first Test against New Zealand in 2017, Brian O’Driscoll presented the British and Irish Lions squad with their match shirts. A figure of Lions folklore, featuring prominently on four tours, the former Ireland centre was an apt choice for the role.

O’Driscoll started by tickling the elephant in the room, delivering a slightly strained gag about how head coach Warren Gatland had dropped him for the deciding Test against Australia four years earlier. Next, he addressed the players with a succinct summary of how the Lions fits into the modern landscape.

“It’s a special thing,” said O’Driscoll. “And it shouldn’t work. But it does, because of the buy-in.”

Investment – emotional, financial and temporal – is, indeed, central to a concept steeped in paradox. Next year’s trip to South Africa will be the 34th Lions tour since 1888. Many agree that the invitational side, made up of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, captivates those who are not even half-baked followers of rugby union. In that sense, its allure is compared to golf’s Ryder Cup.

I can vouch for how the Lions represents a gateway into the sport. Moments from the heart-breaking series loss to the Wallabies in 2001 are branded into my memory. Seemingly trivial incidents, like scrum-half Rob Howley scooping O’Driscoll’s offload off his toes prior to Jason Robinson’s blistering try in the first Test in Brisbane, remain vivid. I turned 12 two days after the second Test. It was a summer that accelerated my casual interest in rugby towards something far more serious.

The clout of the brand is easier to quantify than the intangible glow of any personal testimony. The Lions estimate that the 2021 series will be broadcast to 157 million homes in 135 countries. In touring years, it has been calculated that they sell more replica jerseys than Real Madrid.

At the end of July, Vodafone was announced as the ‘lead partner’ for 2021 in a sponsorship deal thought to be worth around £7million. A fortnight previously, Sky Sports confirmed that it would be showing all eight matches of the 2021 tour, bringing its relationship with the Lions to the 25-year milestone.

“There are a handful of events in the sporting calendar that truly transcend their sport, and a Lions tour is one of them,” said Rob Webster, the managing director of Sky Sports, in July. “It's a moment in time where the home nations come together to take on the best in the world.”

Alongside Rugby World Cups, the Lions is international rugby union’s flagship asset. Those lucky enough to be selected view tours among the richest experiences of their careers. And yet, they are being afforded less and less time to prepare for the toughest task they will ever put their bodies through. 

Coaches of national and club teams have become skeptical, even fearful, of the exhaustion that consumes players upon their return, because the season-to-season treadmill of the professional era does not stop for anyone. Except retirees. 

Could this lack of space suffocate and endanger the Lions, eventually consigning an illustrious concept to the past? 

The fact that the Springboks are objectively the best in the world, having lifted the Rugby World Cup in Japan a year ago, enhances the attraction of the next tour. Five of the Lions’ seven opponents since World Cups were introduced – South Africa in 1997, 2009 and 2021, Australia in 2001 and New Zealand in 2017 – have been reigning world champions. Tom Halsey, the Lions commercial director, has been busy and 50,000 supporters are expected to travel. 

Tickets for the second and third Tests, at 55,000-seater Newlands and 62,500-seater Ellis Park, sold out within hours of the ballot opening last Wednesday. The first Test is set for FNB Stadium, a venue on the outskirts of Johannesburg that holds 94,000 and is also known as ‘Soccer City’. If social-distancing protocols are not required, it will be full. 

That is not to disregard the pandemic’s imminent threat. Jurie Roux, the chief executive of South Africa Rugby (SAR), has warned that the 2021 tour would not be viable commercially without hordes of visiting supporters. The two World Wars brought gaps of 14 years between the 1910 and 1924 tours and then 12 years between the 1938 and 1950 tours. Apart from that, there have been two six-year hiatuses since 1888. All other tours have been more regular, as you can see in the graphic below. A quadrennial window for the Lions has been agreed until Rugby World Cup 2032. The knock-on effect of a cancellation would be significant and wide-reaching.

Although the Lions were willing to discuss moving the tour to October as part of ongoing discussions to align seasons around the world, any shift would have come with conditions to protect their interests – quite understandably. While the Lions is both precious and prestigious, it is also being squeezed.

The 2021 itinerary includes eight games on tour between July and August, down from 10 in 2017 and 20 or 30 in days of yore, as well as a ‘home’ Test on June 26. Japan are the proposed opponents with Murrayfield the desired venue. Even so, a reduction in matches, determined well before Covid-19 took hold, has riled many traditionalists.

At World Rugby’s San Francisco summit in 2017, it was agreed that northern hemisphere domestic seasons would extend into June until at least 2032. Subsequently, the Premiership – a competition owned and run by its privately-owned English clubs – set the date for its 2021 final at June 26, a week before July’s international window was due to begin and days before a Lions tour would start. And the Premiership has not shimmied to give the Lions greater wiggle room to prepare, despite the difficulties of 2017.

That year, Exeter Chiefs beat Wasps in the Premiership final at Twickenham on May 27. Munster overturned Scarlets in the Pro 12 final on the same afternoon. Two days later, ahead of a first game on June 3, the Lions flew to New Zealand. Those selected for the Lions from Exeter, Wasps, Scarlets and Munster joined up with Gatland’s group, some of whom had begun training on May 15, after their respective deciders. Among the late arrivals was Chiefs wing Jack Nowell.

“The best thing about playing for Exeter is the bus back from away games,” he says, grinning. “It’s the only chance you really get with just the players and nowhere to go. There was no way I was going to miss the bus journey back from Twickenham after we’d just won our first Premiership final.

“We got back to Sandy Park, where all our friends and family were. We all had a beer, one thing led to another. We went into town and had a lot more beers. I think things started to get wrapped up slowly from about four or five in the morning.

“I had completely forgotten that the Lions had booked a taxi for me the next morning at 5.30. I got home at five, and half an hour later my partner Zoe woke me up telling me there was a taxi outside. It was all a bit of a blur.”

That cab cost £463. The Lions picked up the tab. Players were paid a basic fee, not including bonuses, of around £65,000 for the trip, so it was a minor expense in the grand scheme of things. Nowell was driven from Devon to Kensington, where Elliot Daly and James Haskell – Wasps’ Lions contingent – had stayed the night.

“When I got to the hotel, Warren Gatland took one look at me and said: ‘You probably want to go to bed mate. Go and get your head down for a couple of hours’. That was pretty cool,” Nowell says. “He understood the position I was in. I didn’t get in any trouble for it.”

This tale would not be out of place in the hell-raising amateur days of the 1970s and 1980s, yet it also epitomises the modern day obstacles that the Lions must navigate. Players are honour bound to peak for their clubs before dusting themselves off, changing into different kit, delving into the depths of their mental and physical energy reserves and starting again.

The Pro 14 have promised to move their 2020-21 final earlier in the calendar, to avoid a similar situation. Their provisional date is June 19. Closer ties to the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) encouraged a more cooperative approach. The relationship with England’s flagship competition is more complicated. 

Premiership Rugby insist that the Lions’ wishes were represented at the San Francisco summit. This is a murky area of muddled rugby politics. According to World Rugby’s press release, Ian Ritchie and Philip Browne were present. At the time, they were sitting on the Lions board as chief executives of the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and the IRFU respectively. The episode demonstrated the Lions’ need for an independent figurehead and Ben Calveley was hired as a managing director the following year. Before that, John Feehan had overseen the Six Nations and the Lions as chief executive of both organisations. 

Calveley appears to have instigated a significant gear change and is making progressive moves towards growing the Lions. He has been involved in World Rugby’s more recent calendar negotiations, which could render San Francisco legislation obsolete in an ever-changing landscape. 

Premiership Rugby has at least mitigated the desperate dash to complete their 2019-20 season by opting to begin the 2020-21 campaign on November 20 of this year and shelving the Premiership Rugby Cup. Professional rugby union has spent a quarter of a century illustrating that cooperation is not its most natural state.

“We’re in this horrible vicious circle because players are overpaid, not in terms of value but in relation to revenue generated,” Mark Evans explains. “So, what do we do to reduce that? We play more games. We slap into the issues of player burnout and fan fatigue.”

Evans is a vastly experienced sports administrator who was chief executive of Harlequins between 2000 and 2011 and currently heads up Global Rapid Rugby. In his book ‘Unholy Union: When Rugby Collided with the Modern World’, co-written with Michael Aylwin, he outlines the “not entirely fair” perception of Premiership clubs as “upstarts, eyeballs popping with the cocaine of other people’s money, taking it upon themselves to savage noble institutions of history and gravitas, the Lions the Six Nations, even the RFU itself.” He gives more context in a conversion over the telephone.

“The challenge for the Lions is that it takes a slab of time for a very small number of players,” Evans says. “I’m a big fan of the Lions, but I am irritated that somehow, it’s always the clubs that should compromise. The implication is that you are not a proper rugby person if you don’t accommodate the Lions. I have little time for that.”

Sport tends to bloat successful products. Think of football and the World Cup’s expansion to 48 teams for 2026 or the wisely abandoned second group stage of the 2002-3 Champions League. With nowhere to go in a jam-packed calendar, the Lions cannot attempt similar stunts. What Evans calls its “punchy narrative” is one of its most valuable components.

He picks out the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League as competitions Down Under with uninterrupted, short and sharp schedules that provide players with an opportunity to condition themselves properly and give their followers clarity.

“Scarcity drives demand and interest,” Evans continues. “Unfortunately, those things don’t drive television revenues. And there’s another paradox. Everyone loves the Lions because it’s got a real rhythm to it, even if it’s probably a couple of weeks short now. But 10 weeks every four years is nothing. There isn’t enough product.

“The television companies will pay a lot per game, but over a four-year World Cup cycle it is not a lot. Things that drive TV revenue are leagues that play for six, seven, eight months. The temptation is to look at things that drive a huge amount of revenue per game and have more games, but that can diminish the pulling power of something.

“It comes back to the fundamental problem of rugby union, certainly in Europe, that for 25 years the costs have outweighed the revenues, so you keep chasing more revenue by playing more to keep the lights on. 

“I think we do tend to think: ‘That’s great, let’s make it even bigger’. Sometimes less is more. “

Sir Ian McGeechan, a veteran of seven tours as a player and a coach, is a Lions totem. He believes tours are “underrated and underestimated by those who have never been involved”. For that reason, the appointment as chairman of Jason Leonard, his “ultimate Lion” for the manner in which the ex-England prop swallowed his pride after being named on the bench for the first Test 1997, has heartened McGeechan. He feels there will be greater appreciation and understanding at decision-making level.

According to McGeechan, the “erosion” of preparation time is the biggest threat to a “meaningful” future for the Lions because it could compromise the team’s competitiveness. In 2005, a clean sweep of three losses to the All Blacks stung. Four years later in South Africa, an epic series restored pride despite the Lions’ third consecutive series defeat. Winning in Australia was vital in 2013, and 2017’s draw against New Zealand was compelling.

As McGeechan puts it: “The Lions are on a roll now.” Warren Gatland has declared himself “thrilled” with the 2021 programme. He says that jet-lag will not be as debilitating. Travel time within South Africa is down on that within New Zealand in 2017. The Lions should not be startled by altitude in the first Test with a game in Pretoria the previous weekend to acclimatise. There are only two midweek games, neither of them close to Tests. Head coach for a third consecutive tour, his fourth overall, Gatland has suggested that his squad will be able to focus keenly on the Springboks. A repeat of 2017’s ‘Geography Six’ episode – when a party of players was whisked in because they happened to be in the right hemisphere – will be avoided.

The ‘Geography Six’ sat on the bench in two warm-up matches with instructions that they were only to be used in the case of an absolute emergency. As Gatland has conceded, his ploy risked devaluing Lions selection. Evans believes any further dilution will damage the model.

A Lions series will be no different to England touring if it is continually squeezed

“If they are not careful, the Lions will become so short that it will be like any other Test series,” he says. “Then the uniqueness of it goes. If it’s just a British Isles and Ireland team going out to play the All Blacks in three Tests, would it be any different to England going over there?

“And, in fact, it wouldn’t be worth the time because the team wouldn’t be able to gel and be competitive. You don’t want to take it back to when you got on a boat to get there and stayed for four months but you don’t squeeze it down to four or five weeks.”

There are ways to generate income and interest without matches. Evans cites the AFL draft and the National Football League’s scouting combine, where college graduates go through televised work-outs so American football franchises can evaluate their physical attributes. Selection intrigue is a mighty commercial weapon for the Lions. Shane Whelan, their director of digital, marketing and communications, is eager to unbridle its potential.

“A Lions squad is a season-long debate, which commences on social media as soon as a ball is kicked at the start of the domestic season,” he says.

Nothing gets rugby fans talking like a debate over who should be picked for a Lions squad

“In terms of online engagement, the squad announcement is on a par with the first Test – it gets massive numbers on social media. For instance, in the week leading up to the reveal we added 150,000 followers on our social channels.

“Over the years we’ve seen it grow as an event too, but we want to take it to the next level. We believe it can be a standalone, appointment-to-view TV event, similar to the NFL Draft, but obviously not quite on that scale just yet.

“Its draw and attraction goes beyond traditional rugby supporters and extends to the casual sports fan – which is why the Lions is so important to the game of rugby itself. We’re currently in early discussions with Sky Sports about how we might be able to create something together to really maximise its appeal.”

Punters groan about the abundance of online articles picking Lions teams. Editors simply wait for the tsunami of clicks.

Another obvious way forward for the Lions would be to follow the Barbarians, in establishing a women’s team. It seems inevitable. Before lockdown, Calveley had spoken to British and Irish unions about logistics. He told Sarah Mockford of Rugby World last October that it would be a “wonderful” initiative that sits in the “when not if category”. There are different challenges at play here.

If picked purely on merit, squads would be dominated by players from England – the only British or Irish nation with a fully professional side. In addition, the women’s Rugby World Cup is on a four-year cycle that coincides with the men’s Lions rotation, so a joint expedition would be unlikely.

Of the three southern hemisphere nations that have faced the men most often, New Zealand’s Black Ferns, the reigning world champions, would be the only one able to offer a competitive Test series to complement decent tour matches. Australia could perhaps manage the former but not the latter. South Africa would struggle to do either. France ticks a lot of boxes as a potential destination for a women’s tour.

Speaking of destinations, the men’s Lions are no longer bound to the 12-year contract with SANZAAR – the umbrella body looking after Australia, Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand – that decrees a Springboks-Wallabies-All Blacks circuit. 

Their agreement with SAR is a joint venture, an innovatively collaborative partnership that has helped craft the schedule. It has also been designed to “combine the commercial offering” of 2021 so that neither party is undercut by sponsors and, off the pitch, everybody wins. One asset, for example, will be a behind-the-scenes documentary that provides an insight into South Africa’s camp as well as that of the Lions.

“The Lions’ first documentary, ‘Living with the Lions’ from the ’97 tour to South Africa, is probably one of the most-quoted sports film ever,” says Halsey.

“At the time, there’s no doubt that it helped the Lions reach a completely new audience, way beyond traditional rugby fans. One of our objectives is to continue to raise the profile of the Lions.  

“You look at recent sports documentaries like The Last Dance or Spurs’ All or Nothing series and you can see what’s achievable. If we get it right, it’ll be an incredibly powerful marketing tool for us, and for the game.”

Negotiations with Rugby Australia are well under way for 2025 and the Lions board have agreed on going there. But, as one source put it to Telegraph Sport: “Would a stand-alone tour of Australia be the best use of that window for the Lions?”

The Wallabies only reached the quarter-finals of Rugby World Cup 2019 but there is reason to believe they will improve. Dave Rennie is a fine head coach and the national Under-20 side, led by superb flanker Fraser McReight, lost to France in the final of the 2019 World Championship.

Outside the Tests, strength of opposition there is less certain. Australia only has four Super Rugby franchises as things stand. The 15-a-side code is struggling against the popularity of rugby league. Many players are heading to take up opportunities with clubs in Europe and Japan. Back in 2013, Western Force coach Michael Foley prioritised the Super Rugby campaign and named a reserve team to face the Lions. Their former coach Phil Blake called the debacle, which foreshadowed a 69-17 thrashing, “disgraceful”.

“Next time there's a touring side coming to Australia they'll jump up and down if they don't get a game in the west,” Blake said. “But why should they get another game when they've treated the biggest game in their history this way?”

It was reported three years ago that a Test against Argentina, the newest SANZAAR nation, could supplement the 2025 itinerary as the lucrative, if farcical, stop-off in Hong Kong to face a booze-soaked Barbarians did in 2013. It begs the question of when a new location for an entire tour might be added.

Les Bleus are aiming to win the Rugby World Cup they are hosting in 2023, but the distance is too short

Argentina is probably lacking the domestic player pool to support a sufficient schedule. France has that element – and Les Bleus are unapologetically aiming to win the Rugby World Cup they are hosting in 2023 – but would not require the long-distance travel traditionally associated with the Lions. How about Japan?

Tokyo-based journalist Rich Freeman is sure that local fans would “love” to welcome the Lions and reminds us that Japanese club side Suntory Sungoliath beat Wales 45-41 in 2001, but worries for the strength of opposition that the Top League could muster – especially if Test stars are required elsewhere. Weather in July and August would be oppressive, too. A Japanese tour would need to be staged between October and November.

Realistically, though, such considerations have to factor in the financial co-dependency of a Lions tour. New Zealand Rugby (NZR) recorded a record profit of around $NZ 33.4m in 2017. To put that into perspective, it covered the union’s entire contribution to their five Super Rugby franchises for a year.

International rugby union is based on a model of home teams keeping all revenue from matches. In fractious times, with World Rugby dealing out rescue packages, the Lions abandoning one of Australia, South Africa or New Zealand would cause havoc. After helping to fill northern hemisphere stadiums for years, why would they keep coming without a much bigger share of revenue if the Lions millions are effectively withdrawn?

“Lions tours are important to the southern three, that’s true,” Evans says. “But it is a windfall once every 12 years and – everyone always forgets this – think of all the money those teams have generated for northern hemisphere sides over the decades.

“Those games, for which they get nothing, come up far more regularly. The idea that the Lions are doing the southern hemisphere countries a favour, I think, is patronising.”

More frequent Lions tours would confuse Rugby World Cup cycles. Scarred by setbacks in 2018, when his big Lions cohort looked tired and England lost six games in a row, Eddie Jones would argue that once every four years is quite enough, thank you.

If one image sustains the Lions more than any other, it is the one concocted by Jim Telfer and unleashed during a forwards meeting before the first Test victory at Newlands, Cape Town in 1997. In a rousing team-talk, canonised thanks to the ‘Living with the Lions’ documentary, the Scottish forwards coach – himself a Lion in 1966 and 1968 – uttered the immortal rallying cry: “This is your f------ Everest, boys.”

“I think it comes from teaching,” says Telfer, now 80, remembering that morning and his approach to pre-match speeches.

“You have to be a bit of an actor, a show-off, to be honest. You try to entrance the class and get them in the palm of your hand. That’s what I was trying to do with the players, get them in the palm of my hand so that every word I said would resonate with them.

“That’s why I used the word ‘Everest’… and I didn’t think ‘this is the special message’ at all. It just seemed right. Everybody knows, although it’s been done thousands of times since, that reaching the top of Everest is the pinnacle. To be chosen for a Test match in South Africa, and then to win one, is the ultimate. It’s reaching the top of Everest.”

Telfer emphasised the notion that South Africa always felt “invincible” at home and that scrummaging was the Springboks’ “lifeblood”. Red netting was laid out over chairs around the forwards, a visual cue to remind his pack how low they had to be in the tight exchanges to nullify meatier opponents. But it is the Everest metaphor that has stuck.

Tours need to retain an Everest-like standing, but uncertainty lies ahead for the Lions and the sport as a whole. CVC Capital Partners have already acquired stakes in the Premiership and the Pro 14 and are finalising a Six Nations deal. It has been reported that the venture capitalists have approached the Lions as well. A British and Irish league, would be underpinned by juicy Lions selection subplots. 

Many players regard a place on a Lions tour in the highest esteem. The 2021 series has been explicitly targeted by 35-year-old Ireland captain Johnny Sexton. It was also part of the reason Manu Tuilagi signed at Sale Sharks this July, in order to stay available to England and therefore to the Lions.

Warren Gatland will lead the Lions for a third time in South Africa next year

Gatland, an adaptable figurehead popular with players, is one of the most important men in the Lions’ professional era. At times, though, his honesty has upset Lions romantics. He admitted that he chose Andy Farrell over Shaun Edwards for the 2013 tour in order to garner insight into how the England defence coach worked prior to Rugby World Cup 2015, at which Wales and England shared a pool. Was that treating the Lions as his Everest? It was definitely multi-tasking.

This month, Gatland will travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland to meet union chief executives to establish the availability of coaches. His secondment from the Chiefs in New Zealand has freed up scope to do this, therefore bypassing another irritating obstacle of 2017. But there is a pickle ahead. Scott Robertson, who led the Crusaders to three straight Super Rugby titles before completing another victory in Super Rugby Aotearoa this July, has thrown his hat into the ring.

It is an exciting development, and Robertson’s ideas would surely improve the Lions’ chances. However, the unavoidable feeling is that Robertson, who only contacted Gatland after his application for the role of New Zealand head coach was unsuccessful, could be using the Lions to gain international experience. It would be a launchpad for him to climb his own Everest. Does that matter? Would winning trump that unease? That is a decision for Gatland.

McGeechan sums up the value of the Lions in three sentences: “The players think it’s the biggest jersey. Supporters want to put that jersey on and follow them. Sponsors want to be on the jersey because of what it is.”

Three sentences, all of them difficult to dispute, to describe a team representing four countries. Thankfully for the future of the Lions, they would seem strong enough to survive the squeeze.

  • The Future Of... is a longread series published on Thursdays at 8am. Previous chapters have explored the future of the great British country pub,  the future of Portsmouth FC, and the future of meat. Return to next Thursday for the next instalment
  • Do clubs have a right to protect their players and leagues from the interests of the Lions? Can travelling to follow the team remain viable post-Covid? What are your earliest, best and worst Lions memories? Let us know in the comments below.