The key issues of a women’s Lions tour explained: Where, when, and why has it not happened before?

Hopes for a women’s British and Irish Lions tour were given a major boost on Monday when it was announced that the Lions had launched a feasibility study into creating a female version of the iconic invitational side. 

Insurance giant Royal London is funding the research and has been unveiled as the first “principal partner” of the Women’s Lions Programme. The company will fund and participate in a feasibility study, which will examine whether a Lions women’s team can be formed in the coming years.

The partnership represents a major step forward for the commercial future of women’s rugby across the home nations as Royal London is also a partner of the Lions for the men’s 2021 tour against world champions South Africa, showing more joined-up thinking from brands around men’s and women’s rugby sponsorship.

According to Royal London they are “investing in the future of women’s rugby in the UK and Ireland by supporting research and analysis that could help it continue to grow.”

However, there is precedent for women’s touring sides as the Barbarians launched their female side in 2017 and played the Red Roses at Twickenham in 2019.

Although the Lions have previously stated positive intentions towards launching a women’s side, this is the first time anything official regarding plans has been publicly announced.

“The feasibility study is an important first step in determining whether a women’s Lions team could be established, and we are very grateful to have Royal London’s support and investment,” said Ben Calveley, the British and Irish Lions managing director.  

What are the big issues?

The first hurdle for a Women’s Lions Programme is that England is currently the only professional home nation. Scotland have a number of players on professional contracts, Wales – who are currently amateur – have stated their intentions to create a professional women’s XVs programme in the future, and Ireland’s women are also under amateur status. If a women’s Lions side were to be picked now based on performance and form alone, it would be overwhelmingly made up of English players.

Currently, those with amateur status would be required to take time off work, which would complicate player selection. As an example, if a women’s Lions side were to be picked on current form Irish flanker Claire Molloy would be seen as a contender, but she has already taken a sabbatical from Test rugby due to her medical career.

Hannah Botterman of England makes a break past Tamara Taylor and Claire Molloy of Barbarians during the England Women v Barbarian Women match at Twickenham


As it stands, a women’s Lions tour would likely be dominated by Englishwomen as other nations’ players, such as Ireland’s Claire Molloy (right), are still amateur


Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Welsh, Scottish and Irish players are increasingly drawn to playing in the Premier 15s. Perhaps a first step towards a women’s Lions side would be to make England’s domestic league a cross-border competition. England captain Sarah Hunter has previously given her support to the idea of Home Nations clubs joining the competition.

Where could they go?

An issue that has always dogged any discussions around potential women’s Lions tours has been that due to the balance of power in the women’s game, the best opponents for the women do not match with those the men face. New Zealand, who along with England are the only other fully professional side in the world, would be seen as an excellent starting point as, along with being a rugby mad nation, it has shown an appetite for women’s sport with its support of professional netball and the national hockey side gaining significant media coverage.

The United States and Canada have both long had illustrious histories in the women’s game and a tour to North America would make sense due to its collegiate sporting systems and, thanks to growing professional leagues in sports like basketball and football, there is an appetite and infrastructure for high-level women’s sport.

Australia would have five years ago been considered a no-go destination as, in the build-up to the Rio Olympics, Rugby Australia shifted all their funding of the women’s game to sevens. As a result, they took home gold and interest in the women’s game increased; although they are routinely beaten by New Zealand in XVs, the Australian Union is now keen to promote the 15-a-side game. Similar to North America, there is a growing professional women’s sport market with cricket, netball and Australian Rules football all drawing in fans and commercial support.

Up until this year, South Africa would have been perceived as a non-runner as the women did not even participate in the last Rugby World Cup. However, SA Rugby have set ambitious goals to grow the women’s game and though they are currently ranked No 13 in the world, they have shown their intentions by hiring former Ireland international Lynne Cantwell as their first-ever high performance manager for women’s rugby. 

Before this year’s World Cup was postponed last week, Cantwell and her family were due to relocate from London to Cape Town, where she will work closely with South Africa’s director of rugby Rassie Erasmus and Springboks head coach Stanley Raubenheimer to improve the all-over state of women’s rugby in South Africa. To give them time to catch up with other nations, South Africa could be put at the end of the rota of touring nations if something were to be drawn up similar to what the men have in place.

When could it happen?

Telegraph Sport understands the feasibility study will be undertaken this year and if it concludes that a Women’s Lions tour would be feasible, then part of the output of the study would be the timing of the tour. 

According to insiders, the study will consider factors such as the fixtures calendar and who the potential opponents would be, which would influence when the optimal time for the first tour to take place is. One factor that will influence the timing of the inaugural tour will be the normal staging of the women’s Rugby World Cup, given it is staged in the same year as the men’s Lions tour, meaning it is unlikely that a unilateral tour for the men’s and women’s side could take place. Due to more women’s players crossing over between XVs and sevens, Olympic years would also be considered as inappropriate to run a women’s Lions Tour.

Why hasn’t there been a women’s Lions team before?

To put it bluntly, the commercial interest simply was not there. In 2001, women’s players wanted to run a Lions Tour running parallel to the men in Australia and the women were willing to cover all travel and accommodation costs. However, referees could not be organised. Having the Lions run their own programme, with the backing of Royal London, makes what once seemed logistically very difficult now a real possibility.

With France and now England in the past two years showing the ability to sell out women’s Six Nations fixtures in grounds like Sandy Park, it would seem both the Lions and Royal London are seizing on this opportunity and interest.

Part of the reason why the men’s Lions Tour has survived and thrived is its commercial appeal and that no doubt will come into play with the women when opposition is being chosen. 

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