England were competitive against New Zealand for the first one and a half tests, despite being under strength in the first. In the second test against South Africa, Wales missed their best opportunity yet of recording a first away win versus a Tri Nations opponent in the professional era. A late, but fair, penalty try was awarded by referee Steve Walsh and converted by Morné Steyn, consigning Warren Gatland’s men to a gut wrenching one point loss.
Wales, having not played a third test, will take heart from their final performance of a long post Lions tour year and it will stand them in good stead for the upcoming Rugby World Cup preparation season. England and France on the other hand were humbled 3-0 against New Zealand and Australia, respectively, and both were completely outplayed in their final dead rubber match. A test too far. Demoralising for coaches and players and a bit of a bore for the fans.
These three-nil whitewash series are all too familiar. Three years into the three match June tour format and a northern hemisphere side is yet to record a single away victory against New Zealand, South Africa or Australia. Not just in test series wins – in test match wins. Zero wins from a staggering eighteen contests. England’s draw with South Africa, in the dead rubber final test in 2012, being the only game not lost by a Six Nations touring side.
Six tours out of six lost and seventeen out of eighteen matches lost. These stats are just about as bad as can be imagined in professional sport, at the highest level.
All negativity aside, if scheduling issues are resolved and the three test series is turned into two, with a third test being played against a so called tier two nation, there is no reason why these tours cannot be a more worthwhile exercise.
This argument would have benefited from Wales winning in Nelspruit last weekend, but the two most successful recent summer tours for Six Nations sides did involve just two matches against the same opponents. When France toured New Zealand in 2009 and England tackled Australia in June 2010, both test series finished one apiece. In 2012, Scotland managed a win in a one-off game against Australia.
Players are undoubtedly more motivated by a shorter, two test format – one win and they know that they cannot lose the series. Not a defeatist attitude, just a realistic one. History shows that most European rugby players retire having never won an away fixture against South Africa, Australia or New Zealand in their careers, let alone two or three in the space of a few end of season weekends.
Another serious problem with the three test format is the scheduling of the first test. Decision makers from the IRB, national federations and league governing bodies must come to an agreement that the first June international weekend should be two weeks after the Pro 12, Top 14 and Premiership finals. England and France, who faced the same issue in New Zealand last year, should never have been forced to play a test just a week after the Premiership and Top 14 finals, as this deprived Stuart Lancaster and Philippe Saint-André of several key players. If the Six Nations sides that travel are under strength at the start there is certainly no justification in having a three test series.
There should still be a third capped test for all sides involved but these matches must involve the so-called second tier nations. As an example, in an ideal 2014 June schedule, England would now be in the USA, Canada or Japan; Australia on their way to Fiji; France visiting Tonga and of course New Zealand would be playing Samoa in Apia. These tests would provide a considerable financial boost to the struggling Pacific Islands unions and also help the sport develop in emerging markets. Few could argue that these would be less worthwhile than the evidently pointless non-deciding third tests between rugby’s oldest powers.
Next year’s Rugby World Cup provides a break from the current June tours and there is therefore considerable time for a rethink. If the current tour schedule until 2019 is followed it could provide a repeat cycle of frustration and painful results for the northern hemisphere sides each June from 2016-2018. By then the number of matches lost could be in the thirties and the number of test series lost in double figures. A bit of realism is required. Less might just mean more in the long term – the north might put up a better fight against the south in a two test format and if the third test can be used to narrow the gap between tier one and tier two nations, the June internationals could provide a meaningful legacy.
Three test series results:
South Africa 2-0 England (1 draw)
Australia 3-0 Wales
New Zealand 3-0 Ireland
New Zealand 3-0 France
Australia 3-0 France
New Zealand 3-0 England
By Alistair Pickering (@FollowRugbySite)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images