Big 3 restore meaning to autumn Tests

Stuart Peel is back! After a very lazy summer, our very own rugby statto / prolific writer is back with a vengeance and is looking forward to the autumn internationals, as he describes here in one of his trademark epics that is well worth a read.

Is it just me or does international sport sometimes not feel quite as special anymore? I’m referring in particular to football, cricket and rugby union, the 3 most popular team sports in England, and I am sure my view is not purely because we happen to be pretty average at all of them at present.

Part of this I think is because much of the international sport played used to seem remote and distant and therefore had a magical quality about it. Summer rugby tours and winter cricket tours were followed on Ceefax, on the radio in the small hours or on the breakfast news.

Now I am in no way enough of a Luddite to yearn for a return to that, but am merely saying that Sky Sports and their equivalents have brought international sport closer to us; action from thousands of miles away is crystal clear in our living rooms in a nanosecond(ish). Clearly this is a wonderful thing but it has made us take international sport for granted as we can see every game that gets played anywhere in the world. It seems more run of the mill.

The other thing that this has yielded however, and the real factor behind the loss of magic, is fixture overload. The prime example of that is cricket where there are far too many fixtures, many of them meaningless. By thinking that they are giving the public more, the administrators are actually giving them less because the players are too knackered to perform to the best of their ability or are too injured to perform at all.

Even worse, they sometimes (understandably) don’t even care. The grotesque Indian Premier League and the Stanford Stupid Series are the prime examples of how wrong sport can go when you remove that crucial ingredient of pride from the equation and make it all about money.

England football friendlies under Sven Goran Eriksson are another case in point. The games were meaningless exercises, lacked intensity and showcased 22 players whose real interest lay in not getting injured and missing a game which actually counted for something. More is not more, it is in fact considerably less.

Rugby has suffered too in recent times. At the end of each gruelling 9 month season, players are expected to tour. You can’t play rugby all year every year but that is what the players at the top end are obliged to do by the men who make the fixtures. Unsurprisingly, players with shattered bodies and tired minds opt to pull out leaving a 2nd or 3rd team to take a humiliating pasting.

Has one of these weakened tours ever done England, or any of the other home unions, any good? It also robs an international set-up of all the momentum that they may have built up during the 6 Nations. It is detrimental in every way, devalues test rugby and shortchanges all those who have an interest in the national team’s wellbeing.

The Tri Nations teams also have a record of bringing weakened teams and, being such strong rugby nations, they generally still do pretty well. However it still feels a little short of a proper test match. When England beat New Zealand 31-28 in 2002, they were hailed to the rooftops. But in truth, it was a severely weakened Kiwi outfit.

Congratulations then to New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, all of whom have brought close to the strongest squads that are available to them at the present time. Granted they have many excellent players not available but that is beside the point. They should be commended for it and others should follow their leads. It is the first time this has happened for a while other than in the lead up to a World Cup.

Even New Zealand’s grand slam team of 2006 was regarded in the context of the RWC and maybe this is part of the problem. The RWC has overshadowed international rugby in recent times to the extent that everything else is subservient to it. A 4th placed finish in the 6 Nations is passed off as ‘part of the building process’ which I find outrageous, but teams may be starting to realise that this is not necessarily advantageous to them.

South Africa went from a shambles in 2006 to World Champions in 2007 while New Zealand went from unbeatable in 2005 to their worst ever World Cup performance 2 years later. Perhaps teams are beginning to realise that it doesn’t pay to put all your eggs in the World Cup basket, that picking a strong team and producing a winning habit is the real recipe for success, and that you really can’t legislate for what can happen over the course of a year.

Tours in the name of ‘building for the future’ should therefore be avoided as it stunts momentum and can ruin promising youngsters in a flash. Look at Tom Varndell. In each 4 year cycle, the home nations should all have at least one summer completely off. That leaves a Lions tour, World Cup year and one other tour. They would be able to pick strong teams to play in games that really feel like they matter. A reduction in the fixture list is the only way.

Therefore, a toast to the Tri Nations. I hope that their bringing strong teams will help to make these Autumn tests feel like they matter as the most recent ones haven’t (forget that England have virtually a whole other team out injured) and precipitate a change in the way international tours are approached. The intensity of every match should get the hairs standing on end, rugby supporters are owed that.

Rugby and sport are done a disservice when international teams take the field undercooked, understrength or simply not caring and the fault often lies not with the players who pull out but with whoever scheduled the fixtures in the first place. We want the best players to be available and performing to the best of their ability as often as possible.

Here’s to an awesome autumn.

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