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RFU to push for shortened Six Nations to help England players better prepare for 2021 Lions tour

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 05/12/2018 Mick Cleary
a group of people jumping in the air: Ireland celebrate winning the Grand Slam and Six Nations Championship earlier this year © Getty Images Ireland celebrate winning the Grand Slam and Six Nations Championship earlier this year

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The Rugby Football Union is to push for the 2021 Six Nations championship to be reduced from seven weeks to six as a means of giving English players an opportunity to prepare properly for the Lions tour to South Africa in July of that year.

The interim chief executive, Nigel Melville, a former Lion, believes that the quick turnaround, between the Premiership final on June 26 and the first match of the tour seven days later, places enormous pressure on England-based players.

Eddie Jones, manager of England reacts during England media access © Getty Eddie Jones, manager of England reacts during England media access

The RFU announced in October that it was pressing ahead with plans to restructure its domestic season, even though it was obvious that the mid-September start and late-June finish would mean that training time with the Lions would be compromised.

Many commentators felt that the prospects of leading England players vying for a Lions Test place would be put in jeopardy by these arrangements as the Celts had agreed to bring forward the Pro14 final in that season to give Lions players a full and unencumbered week together in Britain or Ireland prior to departure for South Africa.

Lions tours have been trimmed from 10 matches to eight to take place over a five rather than a six-week period as part of the global restructuring programme. There has been anger at the tours being trimmed, with former manager, John Spencer, telling The Daily Telegraph that he “feared for the future”, of the Lions, with the lack of time for players from the four home unions to come together as a united team.

Melville, however, an uncapped Lion on the 1983 tour to New Zealand, is confident that a solution can be found.

a man playing a game of football: Mako Vunipola takes on Joe Moody during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park © Getty Images Mako Vunipola takes on Joe Moody during the Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park “My view is you can solve that problem if every four years we move the Six Nations from seven to six weeks to create that extra [training] week,” said Melville, who formally takes over in an acting capacity from Steve Brown on December 21.

“So, every four years, why don’t we do that? The Lions need an extra week. I think we have to look at things differently to protect what we think is important and the Lions is incredibly important for rugby. I have come to that [point of view] because I was a Lion and understand what it is all about.

“The old-fashioned tour has gone. But we have a three-Test series and we have to make sure that the best preparation is there for the team. Is it worth fighting for? Of course.”

Eddie Jones, the England head coach © Getty Eddie Jones, the England head coach Melville will have to summon all his battling qualities if he is to persuade others of the worth of his proposal given that the Celts have already done their bit in bringing their own final forward. Italy and France have no obligations towards the Lions.

Italy, in particular, who have fewer resources than France, would come under more strain in covering injuries with an abridged Six Nations championship. There would also be player welfare issues with five high intensity test matches in a condensed period.

“You’re saving a week [at one end] and putting it there [in March],” said Melville. “That’s the kind of solution that could probably solve it. It is a balance. It is difficult for the Premiership to fit all these games in. We have got to get movement in that fourth year. This way is an opportunity to get that movement if the Premiership weren’t prepared to move. If they did, then we would have to have a game overlapping [with Tests] and that wouldn’t help anybody.” 

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