TALKING POINT: It’s not necessary to fix what isn’t broken

rugby09 July 2024 07:15
By:Gavin Rich
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The endless comparisons between the strengths of southern and northern hemisphere rugby long ago got a bit tired, and anyway they are becoming less relevant now that South Africa’s switch to the northern club-season has blurred the distinction between the two.

Although the Rugby World Cups continue to be dominated by southern hemisphere teams, with England’s win in 2003 the only outlier and the Webb Ellis trophy having resided in either South Africa or New Zealand since 2007, the gap definitely isn’t what it used to be. And it will remain that way.

Yes, the Springboks and All Blacks played in the last global final, but the Boks squeezed past France and England respectively by just a solitary point, and Ireland were pressing for a win against the Kiwis towards the end of their quarterfinal.

And the matches played this past weekend as first tests in series featuring the four Castle Lager Rugby Championship teams underlined the fact that the so-called incoming tours have become much more competitive than they used to be.

There were three southern hemisphere wins in four. But although the world champion Springboks did deserve their win over the world’s second ranked team, Ireland, the game at Loftus could really have gone either way.

Marcus Smith’s misses at goal cost England a win against New Zealand in New Zealand, something that England haven’t achieved since their World Cup winning team was building up to the global event in 2003. And Wales were denied by a few referee calls in the game they lost to the Wallabies in Sydney. That wasn’t a nine point game and Wales could easily have won.

The exception to the trend of southern wins was France’s win over Argentina in Mendoza. France were playing an experimental team so a 15 point win over a Pumas team with a new coach shouldn’t be under-played.

In the three other games though it was close and should have ignited the interest in the second games to be played this coming weekend. In all three there was no shortage of passion and commitment from the players, and there was plenty of engagement from the fans.

Which begs the question - why are these games being played over just two tests? There would certainly be appetite for a third and potentially deciding game, certainly in the series being played in South Africa and New Zealand, where there is the potential for it to be all square after the weekend.


Given the interest in these series, with the Bok games against Ireland having been sold out in a matter of minutes rather than hours several months ago, there is an even more pertinent question to ask - is it really necessary for World Rugby to be bringing in the new reality we will face from 2026 onwards, and which effectively makes some of these July series the last of their kind?

To refresh memories, in the last week of the World Cup it was announced by World Rugby that in addition to the number of teams competing in the RWC being expanded from 20 to 24, there would be a bi-annual new international competition from 2026 - nominally known as the Nations Championship.

It will comprise a top division of 12 teams (Six Nations unions, Sanzaar unions and two further unions to be selected via a process run by Sanzaar, reported to be Fiji and Japan) and a second division run by World Rugby of 12 teams with promotion and relegation commencing from 2030.

In this instance the word bi-annual doesn’t mean what we would normally understand it to mean. All games over a two year period will count towards the Nations Championship log, and teams from the south will play all the teams from the north home and away over that period (in the July window the Boks will play three home games, in the November window three away games).


It all looks dandy except that it feels like overkill. Cricket arguably isn’t being helped by the plethora of World Cups that now appear to be played every other year.

One of the most memorable rugby in match chirps from a player came from Wallaby captain George Gregan towards the end of the World Cup semifinal against New Zealand in 2003. Knowing that the game had been won by his team, Gregan chided his opponents with the words “Four more years guys, four more years”.

That would have stung the New Zealanders for it was true, they had another four years to wait before what was at that time a perplexing World Cup trophy drought. And like the Olympics, which also happens only every four years, the truth in those words is what makes the event special. Hold the Olympics every second year and it will lose allure.

A World Cup knock-out game will never have the same gravitas if everyone knew there was another competition aimed at establishing the best team in the world coming up the next year.

Money of course is what makes the world go round, so there are no doubt financial reasons underpinning this change, but my money says if you asked the average fan what they would prefer, the bulk of them would go with a continuation of the bi-lateral tours and series. Indeed, there are many who decry the death of the old tour, with games against provincial teams, that are these days the preserve only of the British and Irish Lions.

Cricket has brought in a Test Championship and understandably so as the five day format was under threat. The incoming tours series, certainly those that come south in mid-year, do not require changing and instead they are becoming more competitive and watchable.

Ireland’s achievement in winning a three test series in New Zealand two years ago was probably their big achievement of this successful era for that nation, and if the current one was being played over more than two games, and they won it, it would be an achievement that rivalled that one.

The end of year tours to the north, where touring teams play different nations on different weekends, might need pepping up, and maybe that is what World Rugby were looking at when they started the drive for change. In those games, making them count for log points might add relevance.

But then why not go with a three series format for the so-called Autumn tests too? A three test series between France and South Africa in France would be a blockbuster of note after last year’s RWC quarterfinal, and ditto a three game series featuring either England or Ireland.

If anything needs fixing, it is that. Otherwise this looks like another case of people trying to fix things that just aren’t broken…