Former British and Irish Lions tourist Ugo Monye insists the pride will overwhelm the pain for players selected in Warren Gatland’s squad for next summer’s gruelling tour of New Zealand.
Leading figures of the club game have warned that the month-long trip will take its toll on players’ bodies and lead to injuries in the following season. Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty described the 10-match itinerary as “punishing” while Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall called it “ludicrous”.
Recently-retired former England winger Monye, who played for the Lions in South Africa in 2009, has experienced the exhausting excursion first hand yet does not expect any professional to shirk from the task.
“You ask any player to go on a Lions tour of 20 games and you would go because it is the best jersey you can wear if you’re British or Irish,” Monye told City A.M.
“You sacrifice yourself to wear that jersey. That’s how I see it. But I understand how taxing it is on the body.
“I went in 2009. Six Englishmen went; five of them, in that proceeding year, ended up having major surgery. Is that a coincidence, or is it just because they were so worn out?
“It’s an incredibly tough balance – 10 games is a lot – but you need to give the squad time to get to Test level. If that takes seven games, it takes seven games.”
Debate over the Lions tour has highlighted wider concerns over a convoluted calendar and the injury impact on players. Momentum is gathering behind proposals to adjust the European schedule in order to align it with the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition. That could pave the way for a World Club Championship every four years, pitting the best Premiership, Top 14 and Pro12 teams against Super Rugby’s finest.
Monye, who played at the top of the European game in a 13-year career at Harlequins, says he would have relished the chance to test himself as a player but knows that adding yet another tournament to the schedule could be a tough ask.
“As a player, you always want to put yourself up against the best players in your league, in Europe and around the world, said Monye.
“I don’t think there’s any supporter in the world who wouldn’t want to see the best from Europe against the best from the southern hemisphere.
“But I understand what players go through. The amount of games they have to play, the little rest they get. It would be nice to address that.
“There are some guys this season who will play the whole Premiership, European Champions Cup, Six Nations and then the Lions tour. It’s a lot of rugby. But from a fans’ perspective, I’d love to see it.”
For now though, a Lions tour to New Zealand remains British and Irish players’ best chance of testing themselves against the world’s premier players. Despite the retirement of stalwarts Richie McCaw and Dan Carter after last year’s World Cup, New Zealand remain at the pinnacle and won this year’s Rugby Championship.
But for Monye, the Lions have to forget playing catch-up with the All Blacks and focus on their own game.
“We get so obsessed analysing the best, he says. “New Zealand are the litmus test but as much as you’ve got to analyse them just focus on what you’re about, what it is to be a Lion and what you do best. If they can harness that and find their own way of playing and develop their own culture then they’ve got every chance.”