The British & Irish Lions have announced an inaugural women’s team will tour New Zealand in September 2027.
The team will play three Tests against the Black Ferns, the reigning world champions, as well as five warm-up fixtures in New Zealand, which are expected to be against provincial sides.
Confirmation of a first-ever women’s team marks a new chapter in the Lions’ 136-year history, which chief executive Ben Calveley called an “historic milestone” for the women’s game, warning it would not simply be a copy-and-paste version of men’s tours.
“What we won’t do is just replicate what happens in the men’s game,” said Calveley. “This is potentially very different. We see ourselves in the future going to lots of very, very different locations.
“You could see France being really interesting for a women’s Lions tour in the future, the same around North America – they’re hosting men’s and women’s World Cups in 2031 and 2033.
“The page is blank and we could take ourselves anywhere provided that’s it’s right for growth of the women’s game.”
Significantly, there will be no international quotas imposed on a women’s team, which would follow the same merit-based selection process that has been in place for men’s Lions teams.
There have been fears that English players would dominate a women’s Lions squad given the Red Roses have been the most successful home nation on the female Test scene in recent years, having won the last four Six Nations titles.
Organisers insist the women’s team will be commercially sustainable, having already secured two commercial partners to support the 2027 tour. Royal London, the Lions’ global partner, will act as the founding partner for the women’s team, while insurance company Howden has been confirmed as the title partner for the inaugural series.
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) January 16, 2024
Money invested by Royal London will be directly invested into player pathways in each of the home unions to support the continued wider growth of the women’s game.
“We’re really clear that we’re just one part of the global rugby ecosystem and we are now a very new part of the women’s game, and we wanted to make sure that we were taking decisions that were in the best interests of the Lions, but also in the best interests of the women’s game,” said Calveley.
The development follows months of work by the Women’s Lions feasibility steering group – composed of administrators from across professional rugby, business executives, and former players – which last year concluded that a tour would be commercially sustainable.
The key questions
Why New Zealand?
Quite simply, the Black Ferns are the queens of women’s rugby. In truth, they are one of only two rugby nations, alongside France, who would be competitive opposition for a women’s Lions team. The British & Irish Lions have also been inspired by the record-breaking World Cup the country hosted in 2022, which retrospectively acted as a blueprint for the 2027 tour.
“These matches will be hyper competitive, but in addition, our anticipation is that it brings with it sell-out crowds, so we’ll have passionate fans in full stadiums,” said Lions CEO Ben Calveley. “There’ll be a high media footprint, high levels of interest from broadcasters and so on. And really importantly, it’s commercially sustainable, not just for the Lions but for the host in New Zealand Rugby as well.”
Where will future tours go?
While New Zealand was the “unanimous” choice for the 2027 tour, France and North America have been touted as possible hosts for future women’s tours, which would deviate from traditional tourist locations in the men’s game.
“We spoke to lots of different countries around the world as you would expect and the good news is that there was lots of interest,” said Calveley, who remained tightlipped on what other nations were mooted as part of long-term plans. “New Zealand are back-to-back world champions and such a rugby-loving nation that the level of competition for 2027 would be significant.”
Won’t it be full of English players?
The short answer is yes. While the women’s rugby landscape could change over the next three years, it is hard to see the first women’s Lions team being truly representative of each of the home nations. England, who will be heavy favourites to win a fifth consecutive Women’s Six Nations this year, were the first women’s side to benefit from professional contracts five years ago. Wales, Scotland and Ireland have been slow to follow suit, although with a large contingent of non-English players now playing their club rugby in England’s top flight, Premiership Women’s Rugby, that could soon change.
Who is paying for it?
Money is often a sticking point in women’s rugby which, for the most part, operates at a loss compared with the riches awash in the men’s game. For context, the Red Roses’ historic Grand Slam finale at Twickenham last year, which attracted a crowd of 58,498 in May, brought in around £1million for Rugby Football Union. Calveley, however, has promised the 2027 women’s tour will be a commercially sustainable enterprise, having already secured two commercial partners in Royal London and Howden.
What are the next steps?
The Lions will put together an advisory group that will be tasked with mapping out the finer details for the 2027 tour, including what the warm-up fixtures will be, recruiting a coaching team and what TV coverage will look like. “We know we’re playing three Tests against the Black Ferns, but the rest of the programme will be determined and really importantly, be put together in line with female-specific player-load guidelines that are currently being worked on by World Rugby and the International Rugby Players’ Association,” explained Calveley.
What does this mean for the wider women’s game?
Being selected to play for the first women’s Lions team could be the pinnacle of some players’ careers. The Lions brand undoubtedly carries prestige and its – some would argue overdue – venture into the female game should attract more eyes on women’s rugby. But the idea of the world’s best home-grown players pitting themselves against six-time world champions New Zealand will do little to develop the competitive landscape of the women’s game. In fact, the concept could hardly be further from what World Rugby are trying to achieve through WXV, the global women’s competition which launched last autumn to give developing nations on the women’s scene more Test opportunities.