Is the British & Irish Lions Tour losing its bite?
To be selected for the Lions touring party - or so far as the PR exercise that accompanies it goes - is the pinnacle of a rugby player's career. Previous inhabitants of that famous red jersey include some of the biggest names to have emerged from these islands. McBride, O'Connell, O'Driscoll... these are legendary figures, and to have your own name mentioned in the same breath would surely be an aspiration of every young player.
But as rugby continues to expand, this rhetoric is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with the demands of the professional game - particularly with the Lions tour historically being a relic of the amateur era.
Next summer's tour to New Zealand will see the tourists take in 10 games in a little over a month, three of which will best tests against an All Black side who are beginning to look about as invincible as any professional sports team in the world - and this schedule is already beginning to draw the ire of club bosses across the UK and Ireland.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, Saracens' director of rugby Mark McCall said:
It is ludicrous they are playing 10 games. No-one talks about it, because it's the Lions, and the Lions are special. It's going to be tough, and something that needs to be looked at.
The physical demands which will be placed on these players will be overwhelming and the schedule seems directly at odds with the increased emphasis on player safety and the meticulous player management system put in place by, among other unions, the IRFU.
Given that the concussion epidemic and player welfare is such a hot topic in rugby nowadays, it seems counter-intuitive to place players in such a high risk situation. Aside from the three All Blacks tests, there are seven matches against a host of Super Rugby teams packed with players looking to make an impact.
Not only that, the first Lions match will take place just a week removed from the Premiership and PRO 12 finals which, when you take in the sheer amount of travel involved, will lead to a severe lack of preparation and recovery time before the Lions' first bruising encounter with a provincial union team on June 3rd.
Dai Young, the boss at Wasps and himself a former Lions player, agrees with McCall's assertions that too much is being asked of the players.
It seems a bit dull really to have the first game [on that date], when they know the finals are in place. I'm a big supporter of the Lions, it's a fantastic thing which I was lucky enough to experience, and it's something that should be kept on. But do they have to have 10 games? Could they start a week later?
I know what it meant to me as a player, and I'm sure they can give New Zealand a run for their money. But if our players are lucky enough to go, what are we going to pick up at the end? Players are going to need a lot of patching up.
While it is difficult to deny that the spirit of the Lions tour is intact, the modern game has developed around the archaic institution to the point that selectors will be sending a panel of potentially injury-ravaged and underprepared players to face possibly the greatest rugby team ever assembled.
2017 British & Irish Lions touring schedule:
- 3rd June - Provincial Union Team
- 7th June - Blues
- 10th June - Crusaders
- 13th June - Highlanders
- 17th June - Maori
- 20th June - Chiefs
- 24th June - New Zealand
- 27th June - Hurricanes
- 1st July - New Zealand
- 8th July - New Zealand