The International Rugby Board (IRB) recently announced its revamped tour schedule for international sides. The most striking change to the sequence of tours involves something of a harking back to what some might call “the good old days”. While we have become accustomed to two or three-test “stop-over” tours, during which you hardly even notice the touring side before they are on the plane back home again, the IRB has face-lifted them to more closely resemble the hugely popular British and Irish Lions Tour which so captivated the rugby world in 2009.
Now, although touring sides will still confront their rival international sides, these tests will be intermingled with a whole series of midweek games against provincial and invitational opposition. England’s tour to Australia and New Zealand this summer partially pre-empted this move. England (and their mammoth 44-man squad!) will take on the Australian Barbarians twice, before facing the New Zealand Maoris in Napier. The tour will last approximately seven weeks.
The official cycle of IRB-manufactured tours will begin in 2012 and will finally complete itself just before the 2019 World Cup in Japan. What this inevitably comes down to is a “round-robin” sort of process whereby Northern Hemisphere sides travel down under during the summer (as is about to happen), and their Southern Hemisphere counterparts travel up here in the autumn.
Basically, we’ll take it in turns to tour the SANZA nations, visiting them once every three or four years. Each year there will be one unlucky nation which will travel to North America, Japan or the Pacific Islands in order to “give them a go” – no doubt our respective unions will coincidentally choose to give some of their finest players a break during these respective tours. “Wrap them in cotton wool”, we hear!
The IRB saw the success of the recent Lions Tour to South Africa and how it captivated the host nation, as well as the watching world. The Lions lived in South Africa for a couple of months and were able to integrate themselves somewhat with the local communities around them. They visited orphanages, townships and schools. All lovely stuff. No doubt their efforts were greatly appreciated and maybe they did some good, but let’s not beat around the bush. Putting South Africa aside, New Zealand and Australia hardly need the English, Irish or Welsh boys trotting around their outback trying to help the poor and needy. These are first-world nations!
No, what this is about is giving everyone a chance to hop on the money-spinning merry-go-round. It has, by some, been named the “dash for cash”. The IRB perceives that a longer tour will be more of a draw to the general public, and thus more attractive to potential ticket-buyers, sponsors and advertisers than the one-test “in- out” approach of recent years. The players won’t do so badly either. The BBC has reported that, during the upcoming tour to Australia, England players who are selected for the two tests will receive a minimum of £17,800. Win bonuses would tip this even further.
The IRB might be right about reverting to these more “traditional” tours, but let us just remember the images of half-empty South African stadiums for much of the Lions Tour last summer. Cranking the prices up while South Africa (like everywhere else) was in the midst of a recession was not the most ingenious of ideas. In the present economic climate, will punters really fork out hundreds of pounds to attend numerous matches during a seven week tour? Perhaps England – forever the common enemy – might attract big crowds for midweek games, but the huge stadiums of the Southern Hemisphere are hardly going to be packed to the rafters when Italy take on Australia A.
Lions tours work because each host nation has to wait twelve years before the best Britain and Ireland has to offer come knocking again. We find ourselves in a situation now where we are playing the Southern Hemisphere nations several times a year – even more in the coming year when the World Cup gets under way. The mysticism of the Lions tours cannot be translated to the epic summer tours the IRB is trying to dream up. If it were not for the special nature of the British and Irish Lions, then there would be great protest from the Guinness Premiership and Magners League.
These tours come at the end of a long hard season when the players are on the brink of breakdown. Indeed, the last two weekends have seen two big European finals, the final of the Guinness Premiership and the Magners League final. Players involved in these games have little under a week to recover before being expected to report for duty and jump on a plane. The IRB has become increasingly concerned that the excessive physical demands on players is having a damaging effect on their wellbeing. Yet the very same organisation is seemingly ignoring its own warnings by jumping to the conclusion that more games are required. It is downright strange.
In the next few years, it would not surprise me if the final domestic league games of the season are played in the first few of weeks of June as more and more matches are crammed into the schedule. This season we witnessed a drastic drop in form and fitness from the majority of players who represented the British Lions last summer. They returned dead on the feet. The result? The French stormed their way to a Grand Slam, a Heineken Cup and almost a Challenge Cup too. The hangover from the Lions Tour did the British and Irish players no favours whatsoever. Football players (other than in a World Cup year) rarely play all year round. Why do we expect rugby players to?
These guys are professional athletes and need to be given time to rest. Otherwise, they will not be able to perform to their peak. And then who will be complaining? Us! The paying spectators who turn up to watch a half-fit Mike Phillips, Rob Kearney, Jamie Roberts and so on! Rather than stacking the calendar full of matches, we need to realise that less is more. We must appreciate just how beneficial a well-structured pre-season can be for these players. At the moment, we are complaining that Northern Hemisphere teams are substandard compared to their Southern Hemisphere rivals. Sending our knackered players down under for seven weeks – where they will inevitably get slaughtered after a long season – is not the answer. Instead of prioritising our players’ performance capacity, these revamped summer tours smack of an attempt to fill the coffers of our rugby unions.