Momentum continues to build behind the campaign for a women’s British and Irish Lions tour, a new branch of the touring team that could be approved in the coming year.
Royal London was a sponsor for the men’s team for this summer’s series in South Africa, but the insurance company has also funded research to assess how a women’s tour could be made viable.
One of the major obstacles holding the venture back is a lack of professional teams in the women’s international arena, with England being the only such example among the home nations.
Ireland flanker Claire Molloy and England prop Shaunagh Brown are two prospective players who would be considered for a women’s Lions squad were one named tomorrow.
The Red Roses—who have won the last three Six Nations tournaments—would seem likely to account for a big majority of the squad as a direct result of their professional status.
Brown suggested that may not be the case, though the former firefighter cited England’s advantage as an example that other unions must follow when it comes to boosting the women’s sport.
Approving of Royal London’s interest in inspiring a women’s team, the Harlequins star told The Telegraph : “When you first make an off the cuff comment about women’s Lions, people say England would dominate but when you think about it you have Claire Molloy, ( Wales star) Jasmine Joyce, and Scottish girls like Chloe Rollie, Jade Konkel and Rhona Lloyd.
“They are fantastic players but for other reasons, like the setup isn’t in place, girls have to work full-time. England are gifted in that we have 28 full-time professionals.
“It is easier for England to get better because if I need to go on a five-week camp, I can go, but for the other girls they have to organise it with their jobs. It is harder to get better when you have to balance work. A lot of people don’t realise that a lot of the girls from the other nations are working nine to five or on shift.
“I have done that side of life and now that I don’t have to do it anymore, I see the benefits of it with my rugby. Surely the other unions are [not surprised] if Wales get beaten 50-0 by England? Their players have to go to work.
“ Claire can only have three-day camps because she has to work whereas with England we had a month solid in camp before the Six Nations. It is not fair, it would be better for the whole game if these unions pulled their socks up.”
Of those names mentioned by Brown—who only started playing rugby in 2015—Joyce was one of only three non-English members of Great Britain’s women’s sevens squad at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Team GB finished fourth in both sevens competitions to just miss out on the medal places in Japan, where England’s advantages in the women’s sector were highlighted again.
Brown continued to say a women’s Lions touring team is inevitable, suggesting it would occur at a different point in the rugby cycle, away from their male counterparts: “I haven’t been involved in rugby as long but as an outsider looking in a women’s Lions Tour is a no brainer. People will ask 'when is the women’s tour?' when they see the men but then you have to explain that there isn’t one. People ask ‘why?’ and say ‘it isn’t fair?’
“It doesn’t make sense that there isn’t one. It will happen sooner or later. It has to happen and now with Royal London looking into the details, it is very likely that the tours would happen at a different time as our World Cup happens in a different window. I don’t think we will just mirror the men.
“We as players now recognise we are a product that can be sold for the betterment of the game and it is about getting women’s players to realise that and value themselves as well.”
It’s been more than two decades since the men’s sport turned fully professional, and today’s top stars earn salaries in excess of £1million from their clubs alone.
Lions managing director Ben Calveley suggested earlier in August that it was a matter of “when, not if” a women’s equivalent would be introduced, though it’s uncertain where they would tour.
While the men’s team take turns visiting South Africa, Australia and New Zealand every four years, not all those countries take nearly as much pride in their women’s programmes.
And 70-cap veteran Molloy—who juggles her duties as a doctor alongside a playing career—delighted in the prospect of linking up alongside some of her British opponents as a team-mate.
“Every time the Lions cycle comes through, we would be talking about a women’s team and the different combinations and how exciting it would be to play with people like Shaunagh, who I slog it out against a couple of times a year. It would be nice to play with her,” the Wasps star said.
“There is such talent in the Premier 15s and across the home nations and we saw that with the Team GB sevens, we saw what can be done, there were two Scottish girls and Jasmine Joyce from Wales. You saw what those girls did by only being together for five months, why couldn’t the British and Irish Lions women do that?”
It’s evident the other nations contributing to a women’s British and Irish Lions squad have some catching up to do compared to England.
That’s particularly the case for Wales and Scotland, who between them account for 11 of the last 13 Wooden Spoons at the Six Nations (awarded to the team who finishes last in the table).
But it shouldn’t affect their chances of having the chance to put players forward for a Lions squad. After all, the men’s team first toured in 1888, a century before the sport turned professional.
Royal London’s research into a women’s touring team is forecast to be concluded by the end of 2021, giving hope that a potential ‘Lionesses’ squad is edging closer.
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