I was lucky enough to witness the spectacle of my first England vs New Zealand test on Saturday afternoon at Twickenham, two of the heavyweights of world rugby coming together to do battle in another November test. The game may not have been a classic and the British weather took its hold, particularly in the second half, however the skills on show remained world class. Fortunately I was seated in the corner of the North stand as Jonny May ran in his thriller right in front of us, I was also seated directly behind a kiwi fan. Mays try is where the teasing and taunting started, back and forth throughout the game, only in rugby could this happen in such a light-hearted and friendly manner. As the final whistle blew the gent in front shook our hands and said good game, as we departed our seats he put to us the question in his firm accent; ‘that was bloody good, why don’t they do a three test series up here?”. He acknowledged that TV money was probably the foremost issue however his point was still a valid one.
Every summer our boys travel down to the southern hemisphere and engage in a thrilling three test series versus their hosts. The tours allow coaches to gauge their squads, swap players, reward those who do well and find those who need to work on elements of their game. A good example of this is Kyle Eastmond, the tour exposed his weaknesses and allowed him to go away and work on them in the off-season, had he played three different teams he may not have been exposed in such a manner. Lancaster’s men learned valuable lessons down south and a three test series takes away some of the pressures of a one off test match, knowing you won’t get another crack at the All Blacks for a year. The tour also allowed the England team to travel around the country, visiting schools and rugby clubs and playing three tests and a friendly in four different towns, which benefits the hosts of such a tour.
Going back to the New Zealander from Twickenham, he said he was an Aucklander and recalled from when he was younger witnessing a test between the British and Irish Lions against Auckland. The team he supported took on the mighty Lions, the men he watched every week tested against the best and despite the loss the experience stuck with him. In the past there have been epic clashes between club sides and international teams, more recently there have been the occasional skirmish, Munster against the All Blacks and Leicester Tigers taking on South Africa in 2008 and 2009 respectively. Both games we great contests, the touring side fields some of the fringe players who have a point to prove to the coaches and the club sides field a blend of former test players from overseas and youngsters who relish the occasion.
For the fans these matches offer them a chance to witness an international side in their home patch and for British and Irish countries this is a great chance to reach new audiences. England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales play all their international fixtures in one stadium, a three test series allows international teams to travel and play friendlies against club teams and provinces. There is also room for international rugby to grow in the UK, imagine an England test being held away from Twickenham, in a stadium like Old Trafford or Anfield. There are the obvious financial implications from doing this, however a game at Old Trafford could attract more Sale Sharks fans or a game at St James’ Park more Newcastle Falcons supporters. There is also the incentive of spreading the game to increase playing numbers and surely a wider talent pool will only strengthen the international set up.
My final point about introducing a three test series instead of the current November internationals is that some of the magic is taken away from playing these sides. It is no longer a rareity for England to play the All Blacks or Australia as they come over every year, the case of too much of a good thing is bad could be argued. Imagine if England fans only got to see the Aussies or South Africans every couple of years, it would make it more special when they finally arrive. People may be outraged by the prospect of these regular internationals taken away in the place of test series but our Southern Hemisphere counterparts have them and they aren’t complaining.
Ultimately entertaining the idea of a test series in the Northern Hemisphere is probably the closest we will come. The thought of test matches held away from Twickenham and the Aviva stadium are a distant prospect, even in the World Cup England will only play one match (against Uruguay) away from the home of English rugby. Mid-week fixtures against club sides and provinces would be a nice touch and are possible within the current November internationals. Only time will tell if things change but now the sport is professional money will have its say and it may be too late to change the current arrangements, big alterations would have to be made and people would have to put a very strong case to the governing bodies but we can always dream.