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Trim the Tour back? It would be a disaster.

Byline: IN MY VIEW ANDY HOWELL

THE two most powerful men in English rugby are in cloud cuckoo land if they believe shortening future Lions tours by a week and cutting the number of matches won't have an adverse effect on the chances of conquering New Zealand, South Africa and Australia. In my opinion, Mark McCafferty, chief executive of the umbrella organisation which represents the 12 Aviva Premiership clubs, and RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie should have a big rethink.

They need to fully grasp the number one importance of the Lions, not only to rugby supporters in Britain and Ireland with an estimated 25,000 being in New Zealand, but to players in participating countries - the four home unions and the opposition.

As Lions captain Sam Warburton stressed, it's the "pinnacle" of their careers with the only thing likely to match it being a World Cup final.

"Without sounding too strong, I'd be gutted, devastated, if the Lions was lost," he stated.

New Zealand captain Kieran Read backed him, saying: "This talk about the Lions going down the toilet doesn't seem right to me."

But it could happen at some stage because the plans of McCafferty, which have been approved by Ritchie, arguably the most important man in British and Irish rugby, will have genuine implications for the Lions.

Warren Gatland got lucky this time because European champions Saracens and Irish province Leinster lost in the semi-finals of their bread-and-butter competitions, the Premiership and the Guinness PRO12.

Between them, they produced seven of the starting line-up that showed steely determination to snatch a pulsating 15-15 draw with back-to-back World Cup holders New Zealand in Auckland.

That those players were able to spend a precious extra week training with the Lions before departure Down Under was crucial to the outcome of the whole tour.

Richie maintained: "I do not think there is anything in eight games as opposed to 10 that eradicates what the Lions is about and I think it is perfectly tenable."

As far as I'm concerned, he's spouting nonsense because the Lions would have one-and-a-half arms behind their back, not the current one, when going on tour.

I don't believe they had enough preparation matches and time to mould a squad before facing the All Blacks this time.

The Lions were getting better by the game but it could be argued Gatland may not have found his best 15 players.

Time ran out on the likes of Iain Henderson, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar, top tour try-scorer Tommy Seymour and Rory Best, just as they were coming to the boil.

McCafferty said: "To be playing 10 matches in a five-week period is too much and our views on that have not changed.

"Hopefully, come 2021, some of those changes will come into place and they have largely been agreed. The duration of the tour is scheduled to come down by a week so that will mean a decrease in games.

"Ultimately it is up to the Lions how many games they put into the time frame, but we have a big interest in how players are managed through that."

Yet Premiership Rugby are understood to be considering holding more fixtures by introducing a Ryder Cup-style global club competition between northern and southern hemispheres, while South African franchises Cheetahs and Kings have been linked with an expansion of the PRO12 if they lose their Super Rugby places.

So it can be argued the supposed concern from the clubs about player welfare is a red herring, that really it's a cover for a bigger battle over the control of the sport.

Talk about the tail wagging the dog! The importance of the Lions is vital to the future of clubs and regions in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales because tour success rubs off on them by generating increased interest from the public and, one presumes, extra financial income. Of course, teams in the Aviva Premiership and PRO12 should be adequately recompensed for supplying players to tours but not to the detriment of the chances of the Lions winning another series.

One thing you can be assured of is, in my opinion, supporters of the Lions would disappear if their favourite team wasn't competitive.

McCafferty must know that but I, with millions of other rugby followers around the globe, sincerely hope that's not part of the agenda of the Premiership clubs.

Mark my words, if the Lions were to be scrapped, it would be a disaster for the sport.

Instead of shortening them, they should be extending them by a week. If the Lions had had an extra two preparation matches this time, I've a sneaky feeling they would have become only the second Lions team in history to head home victorious from New Zealand.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 11, 2017
Words:794
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