Emma Mitchell (centre left) and Janice Byford (centre right) and ARU chief executive at the time, John O'Neill (bottom left)

In March, the British and Irish Lions announced that it had launched a feasibility study into creating a women’s version of its iconic touring side. The research will be funded by Royal London, the first “principal partner” of the Women’s Lions Programme, and the insurance giant will examine whether a women’s Lions team is a viable proposition for future tours.

Considering the development and increased exposure that women’s rugby has received, with participation numbers at an all-time high and more girls getting into rugby globally than boys, the Lions’ decision is a sensible one. For many, the touring side’s announcement felt like a lightbulb moment. For others, however, it was 20 years too late.

In 2000, preparations for the men’s Lions tour to Australia were in flow but, concurrently, the organisation of another tour had entered its foetal stage; that of a British and Irish "Lionesses" team, the brainchild of former England and Saracens players Emma Mitchell and Janice Byford.

But the Australian Rugby Union (now Rugby Australia) brutally pulled the plug, citing financial restrictions, despite the governing body being apparently flush with sponsors. The suggestion was that promoting women’s rugby in Australia was a cost that the ARU was not willing to meet.

"The tour seemed as if it were just too much of a hassle which, at the time, was upsetting," Mitchell, now a Performance Lifestyle Advisor for Team GB hockey, tells Telegraph Sport. "It was a decision that had nothing to do with what was best for the women’s game at that point.

"It was an opportunity missed and we could have made it happen. It would have been a major landmark."

Mitchell and Byford knew that around 17,000 fans were planning to make the trip from the UK and were under no illusions of the fillip that a Lionesses tour could provide to women’s rugby both at home and in Australia.

In the end, Lions supporters spent around AUS $50 million (£18m, in 2001) down under – a figure which did not even include internal flights.

On June 20, 2000, Byford, the tour manager, wrote to Roger Pickering, secretary of the Lions Tour committee, explaining that, along with Mitchell, Liza Burgess of Wales and Kim Littlejohn of Scotland, planning for a Lionesses tour of Australia – to run alongside the men – had begun. Byford explained that a letter had been sent to all the home nations managers to enquire as to the availability of their players, and that the “ideal situation would be to appoint a coach, set up a selection committee and tour Australia in June/July, 2001”.

Pickering, on behalf of the Lions committee, replied favourably and the ball started to roll. Throughout the summer of 2000, Byford and Mitchell had regular correspondence with Pickering – including an in-person meeting at Heathrow Airport – where the logistics, costs, and practicalities of the tour were thrashed out in detail.

The tour had reached this stage on the understanding that Pickering and the Lions committee would help Byford and Mitchell in their search for sponsors, along with opening the door to media contacts, but if no sponsorship could be secured, the Lionesses’ tour would have to be self-funded. Byford, Mitchell and every other woman who had declared their availability to tour were fully aware and on board. A proposed itinerary comprising two Tests – against the Australia women’s side, the Wallaroos – and three midweek matches was also drawn up between the Lionesses committee and Pickering.

Emma Mitchell playing for England against Wales at Welford Road in 1996

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

Along with Mitchell, former England player Janice Byford (pictured) led the project

At this point, the tour’s first hurdle loomed: the opposition. Byford spent a “chunk” of the summer of 2000 attempting to get in touch with the ARU through her contacts and by emailing the organisation and its chief executive, John O’Neill, directly. Those channels of communication resulted in dead end after dead end.

Eventually, in early November 2000, Mitchell was put in touch with a former Australia player who managed to pass on her contact details to the Wallaroos women’s team manager, Stephen Swann, and head coach, Don Parry. In correspondence seen by Telegraph Sport, both Swann and Parry received the Lionesses’ proposal with open arms – they “loved” the idea. The head coach believed that Jeff Miller, the ARU’s High Performance Manager, was also “keen” to see the tour get off the ground, before stating that it was O’Neill “ultimately who [had] to be convinced”.

Swann put the Lionesses committee in touch with Miller, and Byford and Mitchell sent a detailed, formal proposal to him – complete with prospective itinerary – on Nov 14, 2000.  

Having not heard a peep from the ARU in almost a month – not even a confirmation of receipt – Byford emailed Miller a follow-up on Dec 9, 2000 to inform the ARU that a Lionesses assistant coach had been appointed, the selection of a head coach was ongoing, and that finding a sponsor was “likely”. “Lions fever is already growing,” Byford’s email concluded. “Hope to hear from you soon”.

Four days later, Mitchell emailed Miller again to explain that the committee had found a potential sponsor, but that the company involved was “keen to know the tour itinerary, matches and likely venues before committing any further”. This, naturally, required some form of green light from the ARU who had continued with its radio silence.

‘The enthusiasm amongst the British players has been quite staggering’

That same day, Dec 13, 2000, with a tour sponsor within touching distance and the Lionesses’ dream a fingertip from reality, Miller finally replied on behalf of the ARU:

“Thanks for being patient with us and I apologise for the delay in getting back to you.

“We have discussed the possibility of the Lionesses touring Australia at an executive level and have decided that it would be impossible for us to host next year.

“Our Wallaroo’s (sic) are already committed to a series against England and financially this is all we can cope with currently.

“We appreciate your interest and approach but we will gracefully have to decline your offer.”

Byford and Mitchell managed to look beyond what they felt was the abruptness of Miller’s correspondence and pushed back, hoping to address the ARU’s doubts. Mitchell clarified that the Lionesses were not asking the ARU to "host" per se, and that the squad were planning to finance the trip themselves. “All we want from [the ARU] is actual fixtures,” she wrote.

Mitchell reiterated that the Lions committee was supportive of the tour and had assisted in a “quest to find sponsors” and that 65 players across the four countries had made themselves available. A final squad of 30 was due to be selected after the 2001 Six Nations.

“It really is a fantastic opportunity for the women’s game,” Mitchell concluded. “The enthusiasm amongst the British players has been quite staggering.”

According to Mitchell, too, in separate correspondence seen by Telegraph Sport, Pickering faxed O’Neill to ask the ARU chief executive for his support. “So there was communication at the top level,” Mitchell added.

Six days after Mitchell’s follow-up came another email from the ARU. This time, the sender was Andrew Conway, the Teams Administrator, and O’Neill, Miller, and Bill Millard – now team manager at Harlequins – were copied in.

“I regret to inform you; that after further deliberations within executive level within the Australian Rugby Union (ARU); that the ARU has confirmed that it would not be possible to host a proposed tour by the British Lionesses in 2001," Conway wrote.

“I have copied this email to Roger Pickering (Secretary Lions Tour Committee) to ensure that Roger is also now informed on this ARU resolution.

He added: “We were not aware that planning had reached the stages you described and we can only express our further regret with the possible disappointments that may be created by our inability to progress the Lionesses Tour proposal.

“In response to the specific comments you have made: 1) We note that the Lionesses would cover their travel, accommodation and playing costs. However, the financial costs associated with a tour also include the assembly, travel, accommodation, outfitting etc of our own squad. There are also substantial costs incurred with the staging of matches; venue costs; match officials etc.

“It is the combination of these costs in the face of revenue issues that continue to be experienced with the promotion of women’s rugby in Australia that help create the adverse financial situation behind our conclusion… The ARU [also] abandoned all proposed women’s rugby tours in 2000 on financial grounds.”

‘Come on Johnny, double the bonus’

The issue with Conway’s response, however, was that the ARU could not have have appeared more financially flush. In the autumn before the Lions’ arrival, it secured two hefty sponsorship deals, totalling AUS $44m; 20 million would come from Bundaberg Rum for the naming rights of the men’s home Test series, while an extra 24 million would come from the renewal of a previous deal with Vodafone “to cover all national teams”. The previous Vodafone deal only covered the men’s side, the Wallabies.

Earlier this year, O’Neill told The Breakdown podcast that Geoff Dixon, Qantas’ CEO, was sitting behind him at the critical Lions second Test in 2001, where John Eales’s side, trailing at half-time after a first Test loss, came back from the brink to win the series 2-1. After the win, Dixon “tapped [John] on the shoulder and said Qantas was going to extend their sponsorship – just after that night”. The ARU had splurged AUS $80,000 on providing free hats and scarves for the home fans, too. “Golding the stadium,” O’Neill referred to it as.

John Eales's Australia came back from the brink to lift the series trophy against the Lions in 2001

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

O’Neill also revealed that, in the changing rooms after the Wallabies’ 1999 World Cup win, following chants of “come on Johnny, double the bonus” from the squad, O’Neill and his ARU chairman, the late David Clarke, “brought the house down” by agreeing to the squad’s demands on the spot. “And they were happy boys,” O’Neill said. And the 2003 Rugby World Cup would go on to make the ARU over AUS $30m in profit as hosts.

Furthermore, the estimates that Byford and Mitchell received from tour operators Rugby Travel, for 30 players and seven support staff, were £63,603 total for three-star accommodation and £144,115 total for four-star accommodation – that included flights. Given those estimates incorporated 37 long-haul return flights from London to Sydney, the ARU’s costs to assemble their squad on home soil would have been considerably less than the Lions’ travel quotes. Byford and Mitchell had already worked out that they could fly and accommodate 30 players and seven support staff for £63,603 in three-star accommodation. The ARU would presumably needed to have come up with even less money to rally their women’s players – and the outlay would have been partly reimbursed through gate receipts – but admittedly would have faced extra costs in the staging of matches; booking stadiums, extra security requirements and officials requirements.

Conway goes on to say that the ARU was already “committed to a three-match programme with England women in 2001” and that it was a “matter of reality” that Australia’s “narrow player and supporter base for women’s rugby [could not] carry an extensive international match programme”.

Mitchell, Byford and their Lionesses took this as the nail in the coffin – with Pickering’s direct line of communication with O’Neill their final hope.  

On Dec 21 2000, Pickering sent an official Lions fax to Conway, with O’Neill copied, to express his disappointment in the ARU’s decision. “We are confident we can find the funding to make the Lionesses tour financially independent of the Australian Rugby Union,” Pickering wrote.

“It seems to me that this is a development opportunity which is too good to miss for all of us.”

Pickering never received a direct reply to this fax and neither Byford nor Mitchell ever received any further correspondence from the ARU. Mitchell attempted to call some of the ARU’s executive committee on Dec 29, before the entire plug was pulled on Jan 10, 2001. There was further contact between Byford, Mitchell and members of the Wallaroos squad – the Queensland state side offered to host the team and fulfil a fixture programme – but those efforts were futile without the backing of the ARU, upon which the sponsorship offer relied. Furthermore, Pickering and the Lions committee had continually stressed that their strong preference was for any women’s tour to remain official.

"It was extremely frustrating," says Mitchell, 20 years on. "It felt as though the people in charge of making the decision had no regard for the women’s game. They didn’t take it seriously and saw it as an inconvenience."

Telegraph Sport approached O’Neill, Parry and Swann for comment, and none could recall hearing about such a mooted tour. O’Neill specifically told Telegraph Sport: “I am usually pretty ok at remembering these moments in time but I have to admit my recall on this is exceedingly faint. I am not saying that there may not have been some chatter about such a tour but I just don’t think it was on my radar.”

Rugby Australia, meanwhile, say the Wallaroos have enjoyed a significant increase in investment and Test match content in recent years.

John O'Neill said there might have been 'some chatter' about the tour but that it wasn't really on his radar

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

‘ARU block Lionesses tour’

In mid-January 2001, Byford and Mitchell suffered the ignominy of having to write to each of the 65 players in contention to tell them that the door to the tour had been slammed shut by the ARU.

The fall-out did not end there. As January progressed, fumes of the failed excursion had whiffed the way of the British media, with leading women’s rugby website, scrum.com, picking up the story. “ARU block Lionesses tour,” read the headline.

This article did not go down well at the ARU. Strath Gordon, Head of Media and Communications, swiftly took the journalist to task.

“There is one fairly critical fact missing from all the discussion about the tour… that the ARU was never formally approached to host such a tour,” Gordon wrote. The definition of “formally approached” could be ambiguous and debatable but one query is unavoidable: why, if the ARU had never been formally approached to host such a tour, did both the ARU’s rejection emails state that the matter had been discussed at executive level?

Gordon continued: “The concept of a Lionesses tour was mentioned in passing during the August visit to Australia by Donal Lenihan (Lions men’s team manager) and Roger Pickering. That mention was merely an aside… however, in December the ARU heard ‘through the grapevine’ that there were quite serious preparations taking place.”

The journalist replied to Gordon, stating that they felt that Conway’s letter was the ARU’s formal response to the approach made by the Lionesses at the end of 2000, and in it the financial considerations, rather than the lack of communication, were stressed.

Gordon replied: “Andy, if nothing else, is a diplomat… the financial situation presented the ARU with the reality. But communication is a major issue.

“The ARU was not ‘approached in Nov/Dec’. The ARU heard rumours in December and decided to get to the bottom of them. The unfortunate thing I guess, is that we were never ‘approached’.” As we now know, Byford and Mitchell made first contact with Miller, the team manager and the head coach on November 14 2000 – an email seen by Telegraph Sport – and sent subsequent correspondence to Miller, Conway and the ARU. Pickering also faxed the ARU’s CEO, O’Neill.

Mitchell, naturally, was nonplussed by Gordon’s response: “We should have got the ARU’s buy-in much earlier but they are not a very responsive bunch and it took us time to find out who we needed to speak to. The actual proper proposal went to them on November 14, so I’d say that equals ‘approached in Nov/Dec’.

“I suppose we were a little innocent to think that they would be as excited and enthusiastic about the whole concept. I think people can read between the lines of it all.

“We certainly achieved a lot in the time we had. There is no Lionesses Committee with a big budget or letterhead, it was three players committed to trying to take British and Irish women’s rugby to another exciting level.”

Fast-forwarding 20 years to the present, with a Lionesses tour now a realistic possibility – perhaps even for the series against Australia in 2025 – the efforts of those pioneers might not have been completely in vain. Australian rugby was just not ready for them.