Ian Ritchie defends reduction in number of Lions games

Outgoing Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie has defended the reduction in the number of matches on future British and Irish Lions tours.

The Lions’ drawn series in New Zealand generated huge interest in the team but, when the red shirts next convene in South Africa in four years’ time, it is unlikely the 10-match, six-week format will return.

An agreement on the global fixture calendar was reached in March, with an eight-game minimum set aside for the 2021 trip.

Capping it at that number - as well as shaving a week off the tour - has strong advocates in the powerful club game.

John Spencer, the team’s tour manager in New Zealand, has been openly critical of those suggestions, indicating it puts the entire concept at risk, but Lions director Ritchie disagrees.

“I think the Lions was an essential part of the global season, it is and it remains so. We’ve clearly agreed it will remain an essential part until at least 2032 and probably beyond,” he told BBC Radio Five Live’s Sportsweek programme.

“It’s been agreed to, but there will be some tinkering around the edges. We also agreed an eight-match tour certainly does work. I think the future is secure and I think that was the case almost irrespective of what the results were (in New Zealand).

“I think it (eight matches) can work and that was the discussion we’ve had.”

There is broad agreement on both sides of the debate that Warren Gatland’s side were pressed into action too early on this occasion, playing against a Provincial Barbarians XV just three days after their long-haul flight.

But, while the coaches would rather extend the training time before that curtain-raiser, Ritchie suggests abolishing it entirely along with one other non-Test.

“It’s fairly simple to say the first game - this one was two or three days in - why wouldn’t you take that one out?” he said.

“It’s more time to acclimatise to the country. The next tour is South Africa, which is pretty much the same, so you could easily see how you take one out and it would be helpful losing one more game.

“I don’t think that would be a great issue.

“We’re very clear on what needs to happen. I think the Lions is in a fantastic place, very much a protected one, and I think we can all start looking forward to 2021 in South Africa.”

Meanwhile All Blacks fullback Ben Smith is expected to take a sabbatical and miss eight of the world champions’ test matches later this year.

Smith signed a contract extension with New Zealand Rugby (NZR) earlier this year, with a sabbatical clause that allows him to take a break from rugby.

Former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, flyhalf Dan Carter and centre Conrad Smith had similar clauses in their final contracts with NZR.

The Otago Highlanders captain would exercise that clause after the All Blacks’ Rugby Championship clash against Australia in his hometown of Dunedin on August 26, the New Zealand Herald reported.

The 31-year-old Smith would therefore miss the four remaining All Blacks tests in the Rugby Championship, their third Bledisloe Cup clash with the Wallabies in Brisbane on Oct. 21 and the three tests on the end of year tour.

The All Blacks’ vice-captain has battled concussion issues this season and was ruled out of the final two tests of the British and Irish series after failing a head injury assessment in the first match at Eden Park.

Meanwhile, the Irish men’s team have qualified for next year’s Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco

Ireland had to settle for third place in the weekend’s European Grand Prix Sevens tournament in Exeter but the result was good enough to secure a place in the global showpiece in 2018.

Anthony Eddy’s team beat Portugal and Belgium early on Saturday before then defeating a fancied France and English outfit.

However, Ireland lost to Wales (12-15) in the semi-final with the Welsh losing out to Russia in the decider.

Ireland’s Jordan Conroy was named player-of-the-tournament.

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