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It’s time to address the stark inequality of women’s professional rugby


A key issue is the vast gaps between professional and amateur sides in women’s rugby (Pictures: Getty)

Many British and Irish Lions fans were overjoyed with the news that the touring rugby side had launched a ‘feasibility study’ into the possibility of a women’s team.

The men’s side – made up of the best British and Irish rugby union players – has a tour every four years alternating between New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. The team plays three test matches against the country’s first team, as well as a number of additional matches against clubs in that country.

So this new ‘study’ will determine a number of factors about the Women’s Lions Programme, including when a tour could take place, who it would be against, and if there is enough commercial interest.

But there are a number of roadblocks in the way for a women’s Lions side – a prospect that has been spoken about since 2001 when some players tried to organise a tour at the same time as the men toured Australia.

The stumbling block then was a lack of referees available to officiate the games, with players pledging to fund the travel and expenses themselves, as was the way back then.

As the announcement came on Monday to coincide with International Women’s Day, my first reaction was to question if this was an empty gesture for publicity.

After years of debate, it felt like a cruel reminder of how far away we are from a women’s Lions tour. If the result of the study is that a women’s Lions tour is unfeasible, then it could be used as a justification for other companies not to invest in women’s rugby.

Royal London – a pensions and investment company – will sponsor the feasibility study into the Women’s Lions Programme.

Chief marketing officer Susie Logan assured me: ‘These conversations with the Lions have been taking place since last summer, and the announcement was not planned around International Women’s Day. It was kind of the other way round. A lot of work has gone into this before we decided to announce it.’

A key issue is the vast gaps between professional and amateur sides in women’s rugby. England is currently the only full-time professional women’s rugby side. Scotland has a few professional players, and Ireland and Wales are wholly ‘amateur’, meaning they do not get paid to play for their country.

This means the Lions team could be disproportionately English, as not only does the professional status mean a higher quality of playing, but also that they do not need to do any other work.

The majority of the other Lions-eligible players have full-time jobs that they would be required to take a significant amount of leave from to play in a Lions tour.

Already, some players use their entire year’s annual leave to play in the Women’s Six Nations.

Women’s rugby has come a long way in the last 20 years, and the feasibility study is a step closer to the realisation of a women’s tour.

The study will consult experts in rugby, the media, and the commercial sector to work out the logistics of such a tour and the probability of it going ahead.

While Royal London and the Lions are currently forming the board that will run the study, I’m assured by Logan that women’s players will be consulted.

Another key question is around the format of a women’s tournament.

From a commercial perspective, it seems to make sense that the women would mirror the men’s tour. A joint tour could strengthen the Lions’ brand, provide packed stadiums if the women played before the men, and be a shining example of equality in rugby.

It’s not entirely unlikely that the study might suggest the women play against the same nations as the men: New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

New Zealand Women (known as the Black Ferns) are currently number two in the world rankings behind England, and Australia is fifth. South Africa may currently be seen as unworthy competitors – ranked at 13 – but recent investment into the country’s women’s side shows hope for this rugby nation.

Some fans are suggesting the women’s side should not take place in the shadow of the men’s, and instead play the best opponents available.

This could mean a North America tour to play the United States and Canada; two women’s rugby sides that are fast moving up the ranks. The argument here is that this could provide the best challenge for the Lions, and the women’s rugby fanbases in the US and Canada are large.

The three test matches of the men’s Lions tour should be double headers with the women playing first against the same nation (Picture: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s also the possibility of the tour happening closer to home, with semi-professional France creeping up at number four in the rankings.

There’s no doubt that any Lions player, man or woman, wants to play to a packed crowd of Lions fans in a huge rugby stadium and get worldwide media coverage.

But, coverage and commercial benefits also need to be weighed up with the possibility of world-class rugby, and not a 60-0 thrashing of a struggling team against a partially-professional Lions squad.

My suggestion is a mix of the above options.

The three test matches of the men’s Lions tour should be double headers with the women playing first against the same nation.

But, in the weeks prior to the tests while the men typically tour the country, the women should tour the world’s best teams and have warm-up matches against the likes of the USA, Canada and France.

This would build global interest and be a stronger women’s tournament.

‘If the result of the study is that a tour is unfeasible, that will prompt further action,’ Logan told me.

It’s yet to be decided whether that means further investment, but the study will determine clear steps to take in order to make a women’s side more likely in the future.

The feasibility study could be a great step towards a women’s Lions tour. If it is deemed commercially viable by the study, then it’s great news for women’s rugby and shows how much the game has grown in the last 20 years.

If the study shows that the tour is not currently commercially viable, then it will be an unwelcome reminder of the inequalities that exist in the sport.

In any case, at least the issues will be researched and identified, meaning that change could be more likely.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing harriet.marsden@metro.co.uk.

Share your views in the comments below.


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