The schedule for the British and Irish Lions 2017 tour to New Zealand was recently announced. In a change to previous tours the warmup games will be against Super Rugby franchises instead of Provincial teams. We’ll give you the views for and against this change.
First here is a reminder of the fixtures we are discussing:
3 June 2017 v Provincial Union Team, Toll Stadium, Whangarei 7 June 2017 v Blues, Eden Park, Auckland 10 June 2017 v Crusaders, AMI Stadium, Christchurch 13 June 2017 v Highlanders, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin 17 June 2017 v Maori All Blacks, Rotorua International Stadium, Rotorua 20 June 2017 v Chiefs, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton 24 June 2017 v All Blacks, Eden Park, Auckland 27 June 2017 v Hurricanes, Westpac Stadium, Wellington 1 July 2017 v All Blacks, Westpac Stadium, Wellington 8 July 2017 v All Blacks, Eden Park, Auckland
The case for playing Super Rugby franchises – DrivingMaul
I was really surprised by the reaction to the British and Irish Lions tour schedule to New Zealand. For me it was a no brainer that the Lions would be playing the Super Rugby sides and the only game I wasn’t expecting was the Provincial Union Team.
For me it’s natural that the most elite team in the world have it’s warmup games for the test matches against the teams at the next level down. I have seen the Lions three times before, all in 2013, against the Baabaas in Hong Kong, the Rebels and Australia in Melbourne. The Baabaas lost by 51 points and the Rebels lost 0-35, both games weren’t great to watch. That’s against a team stacked with internationals and a Super Rugby team that has been playing together for months.
Talking of time together, the scheduling of the tour is also relevant for who the Lions can and should face. The ITM Cup season is mid-August to October and the Super Rugby season is February to mid-August with a break in June for international games. The Lions tour is June until early July. This means the provincial teams will not be together training, where as the Super Rugby sides will be together and battle hardened from months of games. To pull players from their Super Rugby sides to train with their provinces for a one off game against the Lions just is not feasible.
There was one game where the 2013 Lions played against Combined Country, a team below Super Rugby. Not only did the Lions win 0-64 but also there was a lot of concern at the time about player welfare. The Country players weren’t conditioned to and don’t face players who are as big and powerful as the Lions. There was a real risk of serious injury, luckily non happened. To have one-sided games isn’t entertaining for fans, helpful for the Lions learning to play together for the test matches and could lead to serious injury.
Next it’s about those fans, the rarest and most elite side in the world should be playing in-front of as many people as possible. When I go to watch The Blues the whole of Eden Park is open (if not filled) but when I go watch Auckland, the local ITM cup side, only about a third of the stadium is open. The appeal of watching the provincial or ITM cup sides is lower and also more divisive. There are people that I watch The Blues with, but they won’t cross the bridge to watch an Auckland ITM cup game.
Also a British and Irish Lions tour is second only to the Rugby World Cup as a draw for fans. I have heard of different numbers but the Lions are said to tour with between 15,000 to 20,000 fans. When they go to play the Provincial Union Team in Whangarei the stadium has a capacity of 30,000. So already a half or more of the stadium could be filled with traveling supporters. This means that there are only so many stadiums and towns/cities that are capable of hosting the Lions. There is no way for example that Lions fans will be taking a trip to Ekatahuma to watch rugby like I did earlier this year. Are these dollar arguments? Maybe but I want there to be a big crowd and good atmosphere when I go to the games.
So for competitive games, against prepared sides and in-front as many people as possible it seems to be that playing the Super Rugby sides is correct. I know my friend will cite tradition and that is part of the Lions appeal but the game needs to move with the times.
The case against playing Super Rugby franchises – NZ Rugby Quizzes (Twitter @NZRUGBYQUIZZES)
Lions tours to New Zealand have a long and storied history since the first visit of the Lions in 1904. Tours are keenly awaited by New Zealand supporters, and the tour of 2017 will be no different.
With the world cup, and the fact that the Home Nations all have their own tours, we should consider ourselves lucky that the Lions are still able to tour as part of a 12 year cycle. The players themselves often consider playing for or against the Lions as a career highlight, after all a New Zealand, Australian or South African player is lucky to get one crack at the Lions in a career. Lions tours are special, and long may they remain a fixture on the world rugby calendar.
What makes the 2017 tour different however is the fixtures that have been announced by NZ rugby. Historically, there has always been at least one test played in the South Island, however on this occasion, NZ rugby has made a greedy commercial decision to play two tests at Eden Park, thereby thumbing their noses at South Island rugby supporters. South Island rugby people do at least get the chance to see the Lions visit Christchurch and Dunedin for tour games. However, this break with tradition is highly distasteful for many
The second difference is that the Lions will now play Super Rugby sides rather than provincial sides and won’t venture outside the main cities to places they once visited such as Taranaki, Hawkes Bay, Manawatu, and Southland. This has been justified on logistical grounds, with the super rugby teams being together at that point of the year.
The real reason I suppose has to be commercial, once again NZ rugby have decided to take the money. Selling out Wellington Regional Stadium for a Hurricanes-Lions game is obviously commercially preferable to selling out McLean Park in Napier for a Hawke’s Bay-Lions game.
Places like Palmerston North, Napier, New Plymouth, Invercargill, Nelson and so on are generally lucky if they get one super rugby game a year, however these communities very keenly support their provincial sides, and attendance at provincial games tends to be very good. Progressive expansions to Super Rugby with the addition of overseas teams of dubious capabilities have been to the detriment of provincial rugby in New Zealand. All Blacks now seldom appear for their province. When they do, it is generally because they are recovering from an injury and need game time.
Many of our top rugby players grow up outside New Zealand’s main centres. Our captain Richie McCaw grew up in rural North Otago, and there are many, many others. It is the duty of our rugby union to ensure that rugby outside of the main centres is thriving. Bringing the Lions to places such as Invercargill helps to keep the game strong in that area. The rugby people in that area still talk about the Lions visit in 2005.
Many in the South of New Zealand talk of Otago’s win over the Lions in 1993, but really would a win by the Highlanders over the Lions be celebrated in the same way? I doubt it.
The provincial game in New Zealand has been shunted aside in recent years. Let’s give it the importance it deserves, and inspire kids in all areas of NZ to play our great game. Yes NZ rugby needs money to keep our players here, but we also need to keep our traditions, and ensure that the game in all parts of our country remains strong. The Lions should play provincial teams.
I’d like to thank @NZRugbyQuizzes for contributing to this piece. This wasn’t a contrived discussion but an extension of a chat on Twitter about the tour.
So there you have the arguments for and against. Let us know what you think either on here or on Twitter, where I think the discussion will be continuing for a while.
NZ Rugby Quizes produces frequent quizzes on NZ and world rugby, follow him on twitter to test your rugby knowledge.