Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

NZ rugby hopes to better $25m in hosting profits for 2017 British Lions tour

The British and Irish Lions in Australia. Photo / Getty Images
The British and Irish Lions in Australia. Photo / Getty Images

The detail is still be worked out but hopes are already high that the British and Irish Lions will generate in excess of $25 million in profit for New Zealand rugby when they tour in 2017.

How many games, the opponents and exact timing are yet to be decided but, as the British and Irish Lions wrote the final chapter of their 2013 tour to Australia last night, there was heightened anticipation in New Zealand about being the next host of the composite side. The excitement is brewed by confirmation that the Lions continue to hold a special place in the rugby landscape.

They are a team that captures the imagination of way more people than they really should.

There had been pre-tour fears aired by four-time tourist and former Irish captain Brian O'Driscoll that the credibility of the Lions would be damaged by a fourth consecutive series defeat. Hardly. The Lions brand is indestructible, it seems.

The just finished tour of Australia was a roaring commercial success long before last night's decider.

The Lions invoke a sense of nostalgia like no other team - they are the last great tour; the only surviving remnant of the amateur age and, for that fact alone, it appears that winning is not imperative for their survival.

Not to put too fine a point on it - the Lions are a licence to print money and the New Zealand Rugby Union will be hoping they can better the $25 million profit they made the last time the Lions toured here in 2005.

"There is absolutely no doubt," says NZRU chief executive Steve Tew, "that the Lions remain a huge drawcard and an important part of the rugby landscape. We have someone following the tour from an operational perspective but we haven't formed any thoughts or plans yet [about 2017] other than we know that, whatever happens with the season structure, there has to be provision in there for us to successfully host the Lions."

Events across the Tasman have thrown up plenty for the NZRU to consider. When it comes to nailing down the detail of the 2017 tour, a couple of points will sit top of the agenda. The first is whether Super Rugby or provincial sides should be let loose, or possibly even a mix of both. When the Lions came in 2005 it was provincial sides who were asked to 'soften them up' - Bay of Plenty, Taranaki, Wellington, Otago, Southland, Auckland, Manawatu and the NZ Maori were the lucky ones.

But, back then, Super Rugby was done and dusted by the end of May and the Lions came in early June - it made sense to let the provinces have the stage. If the current format persists through to 2017 and the Lions, as they did in Australia, tour while Super Rugby is still in full flow then surely the franchises would be better placed?

A decision on that can't be made until there is clarity around the season structure when talks begin, probably next year, about extending the current Super Rugby and Rugby Championship broadcast agreement. Whatever the outcome, the NZRU will be conscious of the mistake the Australians made of allowing weakened Super Rugby sides to face the Lions. The Western Force in particular earned the ire of many established rugby names, most notably former Lions coach Sir Clive Woodward, who said their team selection was almost treating the fixture with disdain.

Agreement may have to be reached before the schedule is signed off that all opponents will make genuine efforts to field their strongest available players. The danger for future Lions tours is that if the midweek games are not true contests with the real possibility of an upset, the Lions' tours could be truncated - they may end up flying in for three tests only.

That's unlikely but the warning signs have to be heeded - other than the game with the Reds, the recent tour was a dud in terms of memorable, down-to-the-wire, nail-biting encounters other than the test series which was spectacularly tense and drama-laden.

The final point the NZRU will have to consider is the handling of test players. The Australians made the decision to keep their selected Wallabies out of action until the tests.

That deprived midweek games of star quality and market appeal. It would also mean some players on the periphery of the squad would barely get a crack against the Lions - a side that many will never get another chance to face. The rustiness of the Wallabies in the first test provided another reason for the NZRU to think long and hard about their All Black strategy in 2017.

- Herald on Sunday

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