The powers that be need to find solutions to the scheduling problems that hinder and compromise the British & Irish Lions every four years, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Rugby is a different game in a World Cup year. International players are released for short planning camps during the domestic season. Once Super Rugby and the European tournaments have concluded, the respective Test coaches spend several uninterrupted months with their players.
In short, Test rugby is the priority in a World Cup year. There’s no drama around scheduling and World Rugby-sanctioned windows. Once every four years, players – such as the Boks, for example – are given sufficient time to condition their bodies for the demands of competing at a global showpiece. Coaches are provided with an extended opportunity to train their charges and strengthen the team culture.
Every other year in the World Cup cycle, however, coaches routinely lament the short turnaround time between the end of the club season and the start of the Test calendar. Later in the year, Test coaches have limited access to the players based in Europe as the clubs aren’t obliged to release their assets outside the international windows.
To summarise, club rugby is the priority in the first three years of a World Cup cycle, and Test coaches are expected to do the best they can with limited time and resources.
Every four years, however, there’s a fierce debate about whether the clubs should scale back their tournament schedule to accommodate a British & Irish Lions tour. The composite side didn’t enjoy a sufficient opportunity to prepare ahead of the 2017 tour to New Zealand. They look set to face a similar race against time when they visit South Africa in 2021.
Shortly after the 2021 fixture list was confirmed on Wednesday, Premiership Rugby moved to inform all fans and stakeholders that the club schedule for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons has been finalised and is not open to discussion or alteration. The English Premiership final will be staged on 26 June 2021. Any Lions players who are involved in that game are unlikely to link up with coach Warren Gatland and the rest of the touring party until the lead-up to the first tour match against the Stormers on 3 July.
In the past, the South Africans have also expressed their concern about the short turnaround between the northern-hemisphere club playoffs and the start of the Test season. A large part of the group that won the 2019 World Cup will be involved with English, French and Irish clubs over the next seven months. The new Bok coach may only have access to these players in the days leading up to the first Test against Scotland in July 2020.
The Boks won’t face the same sort of challenge in 2021, though. The Lions will play five tour matches against various franchises and invitational lineups before taking on the Boks in a three-Test series. The Bok coach will have three weeks to work with his entire group – including the overseas-based contingent – before the first Test at Soccer City on 24 July.
The Lions tour means a great deal to the home nations. The composite side tours once every four years and the players want to be a part of that experience as much as they want to feature for their respective teams at a World Cup.
A Lions series is a bigger occasion for the hosting nation in the sense that it takes place once every 12 years. It’s a once-in-a-career opportunity.
It’s a massive occasion for all involved and the results and performances in any series are not soon forgotten. Why then should a Lions series not take priority in terms of player management and match scheduling?
We saw what happened at the recent World Cup after the teams were given months to prepare and sharpen their tactics. The quality of rugby on display in Japan was outstanding.
Why shouldn’t the coaches and players enjoy a fair amount of time to prepare for a Lions tour? Why must we have the same debate every four years when the coaches, players and fans are clearly in agreement that Lions tours are special and that the occasion needs to treated and accommodated with due respect?
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