Crisis talks are under way to try to prevent next year’s British and Irish Lions rugby union tour to South Africa descending into chaos.
Writes Paul Ackford for The Telegraph
Unless the situation is resolved the Lions will start the tour without many of their England contingent and with their Premiership players restricted to just one game a week.
The problem has come about because of the congested global calendar and the new agreement between the Rugby Football Union and Premiership clubs which starts on July 1.
As things stand, the Lions are due to play their first match of the tour against a Highveld XV in Rustenburg on May 30, 2009, the day before the Guinness Premiership play-off final.
Last year Brian Ashton, deprived of players from Bath, Leicester and Wasps who were involved in European finals, was forced to take a cruelly weakened England squad to South Africa and lost both matches heavily.
Two years down the line an identical problem will emerge unless major revisions are agreed. John Feehan, chief executive of the Lions, acknowledged the difficulties but refused to discuss them. He said: “We’re talking to all the relevant parties and we’ve no other comment to make.”
In 2005 Sir Clive Woodward selected 21 Englishmen in his 45-man squad to tour New Zealand. Given a similar breakdown, and given the current protocols regarding appropriate rest periods after long-distance travel, it is possible that the bulk of England’s representatives will miss two, or all three, of the matches scheduled for the first eight days of the tour, jeopardising their chances of selection for the Tests.
Feehan is thought to be in discussion with European Rugby Cup with a view to switching the play-off final with the final of the Heineken Cup, due to be played a week earlier. The logic being that there is more chance of a French side making the Heineken Cup final, thereby reducing the pressure on the Lions party. However, a strong run by Munster, the Ospreys or the top English sides would invalidate such an initiative.
An additional concern is the five-day gap which under the new agreement Premiership players must take between games. The Lions’ schedule includes three midweek games in the first three weeks, making the observance of that condition almost impossible.
“The Lions tour does throw up a problem around that specific clause,” admitted Damian Hopley, chief executive of the Players’ Association. “We don’t want to restrict players’ ambition but we do want to promote their welfare. It’s a really difficult one. We’re sitting down with the Lions and talking this and other player issues through. Either you take a bigger squad, which everyone agrees didn’t work last time, or there is less movement.”
In 1997 Ireland lock Jeremy Davidson played against the Emerging Springboks on the Tuesday and then against South Africa in the first Test four days later. That avenue would be closed under the new arrangements.
At least Davidson knew what laws he was playing under, an assurance the 2009 Lions might not get until November when the International Rugby Board finally makes up its mind over what, if any, of the experimental law variations will make it through for global trial.
Some of those variations, which are having a dramatic impact on the way rugby is played, are already in place in the Super 14 tournament. More still will come into force during South Africa’s domestic competitions.
Yet when Wales visit South Africa for two Tests this summer and when the southern hemisphere nations come to Europe this autumn all matches will be played under the old laws.
If the IRB does decide on a protracted world-wide trial at its meeting in November, the Lions will have, at best, six months to get used to them while South Africa’s players will have been adapting to them for 17 months. On such matters are tight Test matches decided.