In 20 years’ time the Lions will be gone. There’s no room for such a romantic and, when done properly, long indulgence in a professional sport. That is the inevitability we are talking around. Amid all the indignation at the announcement of English rugby’s new calendar, which allows just five weeks for Lions tours, the nagging truth is that this emasculation of the noble beast – and ultimately its extinction – was coming the moment the professional era was instituted.
The southern hemisphere brokered that particular deal. The loss of the Lions, which will hit them far harder than anyone else, will be but the latest development of a dynamic they unleashed but lost control of long ago.
Whenever a sport becomes a business, the people who take over are those who have something to offer on a weekly basis and the biggest potential audience to sell to. At the dawn of professionalism, such was their superfluousness next to Test rugby, it was almost impossible to discern that rugby’s most qualified were the clubs of England and France. Now it becomes more obvious with every announcement.
There were three bodies at this week’s announcement: the RFU, the players’ association and the Premiership. Two former internationals of distinction represented the first pair; one businessman who never laced a boot in his life the third. It should come as no surprise who was in charge throughout.
Nigel Melville of the RFU presented the slides; Damian Hopley of the RPA bit his lip; and in the middle, Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Premier Rugby, held court. This was the McCafferty Show. This is professionalism.
The Premiership clubs lose money hand over fist, but don’t let that fool you. The Premier League did the same until they became, quite recently, so massive they couldn’t help but make money. The Premiership is unlikely ever to reach those levels, but the theory remains the same. Plough money in to create something of value. That CVC offer they turned down is only the beginning.
Meanwhile, the Lions is absent for… well, now it’s going to be 203 weeks out of 208. The tour is also a menace to player welfare. The new game limit for players in England is supposedly sacrosanct, but you can’t reduce a player’s workload during a season in the hope he might be picked for the Lions at the end. So those picked will travel exhausted and vulnerable to injury.
There’s nothing in it for the clubs; there’s little in it even for the RFU. Neither made any apology for that at the announcement. Nor did they think much of World Rugby’s proposed international circus, shrugging their shoulders when asked about it.
In that room was where rugby’s power is. The future, and increasingly the present, is club-led. That’s not something to celebrate or condemn. It just is professional sport. Football, gridiron, Aussie Rules, baseball, basketball, increasingly cricket – all big, bad professional sports, all based around the domestic game. Not a Lions tour in sight.
Michael Aylwin’s novel about the future of sport, Ivon, is out now