Don’t let rugby fol­low box­ing route of starv­ing us of the best fights

The Rugby Paper - - News - NICK CAIN

ED­DIE Jones was in full ogre-slay­ing mode this week, sound­ing like the ar­mour-plated in­car­na­tion of St Ge­orge as he talked about mak­ing Eng­land “bul­let-proof ” go­ing into the 2019 World Cup. Eng­land’s Aussie coach was al­lud­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, to the chal­lenge of get­ting Eng­land ready to meet – and beat – New Zealand af­ter the RFU’s con­fir­ma­tion that the two teams would play each other in the au­tumn se­ries at Twick­en­ham in Novem­ber, 2018.

It has been a long time com­ing. It will be the first tim Eng­land have played New Zealand for four years. This is largely down to a World Rugby match-mak­ing for­mat that is ei­ther a pig-out or a famine, with a three-Test tour, such as Eng­land’s to NZ in 2014, fol­lowed by an au­tumn Test – fol­lowed by noth­ing.

To a lesser ex­tent, it is also about New Zealand at­tempt­ing to black­mail Eng­land into part­ing with half their gate money for the priv­i­lege of host­ing the All Blacks at Twick­en­ham. The RFU, quite rightly, told their New Zealand coun­ter­parts to take a hike.

How­ever, it does not make any sense in terms of the pro­mo­tion of in­ter­na­tional rugby that the team ranked first in the world, New Zealand, do not get to play the team ranked se­cond, Eng­land, for that length of time. This is es­pe­cially the case given that Eng­land have been in se­cond place for the last 18 months.

The des­per­ate need for greater com­pet­i­tive­ness in the in­ter­na­tional arena has been high­lighted by a Li­ons side which took the All Blacks to the brink in a drawn se­ries over the sum­mer, and an Ire­land team that shared a two-Test se­ries with them last au­tumn. Out­side that al­most ev­ery Test match New Zealand play in the South­ern Hemi­sphere Rugby Cham­pi­onship, or against the poorer North­ern Hemi­sphere sides, has become a ‘gimme’.

We did not need New Zealand’s record 57-0 thrash­ing of South Africa in Auck­land yes­ter­day to il­lus­trate the empti­ness of a sport which pro­motes a pro­ces­sion of no con­tests.

Yet, this au­tumn se­ries New Zealand play France, who have not beaten them in their last ten Tests. Al­though France are usu­ally a more com­pet­i­tive beast at home, the fact that they were white­washed three nil by South Africa over the sum­mer is hardly a beacon of hope. They also play Scot­land, a side who did not have a sin­gle test Lion – and who have never beaten them – and Wales, a na­tion who have not beaten New Zealand in 29 Tests since their last win in Cardiff in 1953.

In ad­di­tion, they play a Bar­bar­ians side, at Twick­en­ham, full of play­ers from ev­ery na­tion on the planet bar Eng­land – the side chas­ing them hard­est.

World Rugby should be mind­ful that one of the fac­tors that pushed box­ing into the dol­drums for so long was that the best were very rarely pit­ted against the best, mainly be­cause po­lit­i­cal ma­noeu­vring be­tween the sport’s com­pet­ing gov­ern­ing bod­ies re­sulted in poor match-mak­ing.

I’m not ad­vo­cat­ing that Eng­land should play New Zealand three times ev­ery sea­son, par­tic­u­larly as a strong sup­porter of the prin­ci­ple that less is more when it comes to in­ter­na­tional rugby. How­ever, when in­ter­na­tional rugby is played it should mean at the very least that we see com­pet­i­tive con­tests based on smart match-mak­ing.

If that means that Eng­land, or Ire­land, who are cur­rently the North­ern Hemi­sphere’s strong­est sides, are awarded matches against New Zealand on merit – and Scot­land, Wales, or France, forego their chance to play the world cham­pi­ons be­cause they have not been suf­fi­ciently com­pet­i­tive – so be it. By the same to­ken, if it were Eng­land and Ire­land who were strug­gling to be com­pet­i­tive against New Zealand, they would be sup­planted by those who were.

The same ap­plies to Aus­tralia. Why should a side that have won one Test against New Zealand in 17 at­tempts since 2011 get to play three in­ter­na­tion­als against them ev­ery sea­son? Two in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship is plenty.

The idea that in­ter­na­tional rugby should be run as a mer­i­toc­racy, where the most com­pet­i­tive sides get some re­ward in terms of fix­tures, is hardly revo­lu­tion­ary in the con­text of pro­fes­sional sport.

No one is sug­gest­ing that it should become a mo­nop­oly, but Eng­land should have played New Zealand once over the last two years, ei­ther last au­tumn or this. As dou­ble Six Na­tions cham­pi­ons, and three nil se­ries win­ners in Aus­tralia in 2016, they earned the right. Fur­ther­more, it should have been as part of World Rugby’s des­ig­nated in­ter­na­tional win­dow, rather than a horse-trade out­side it.

As for Eng­land’s chances against the All Blacks, Jones has made it clear that he does not subscribe to the view that the Li­ons achieved the par­ity the fi­nal se­ries score­card sug­gested. Asked re­cently if the Li­ons were de­serv­ing vic­tors in the se­cond Test in Welling­ton he was cir­cum­spect: “Did you see the game? I rest my case.”

Jones ar­gues that while Eng­land’s Li­ons Test play­ers grew in stature, and showed they could live with New Zealand, there is still ground to make up. “There’s a gap be­tween us and New Zealand. We are go­ing in the right di­rec­tion, but we have got a hell of a lot of work to get there.”

While I dis­agree with his Welling­ton assess­ment, Jones is right about there be­ing a gap to bridge. One of the big­gest chal­lenges he faces as coach is the num­ber of play­ers he has to pick from in Eng­land, and choos­ing the right ones.

Jones has made a good fist of it so far, as his out­stand­ing record with Eng­land shows. How­ever, there would be noth­ing quite as in­struc­tive as a game against New Zealand for him to sort those with bul­let­proof World Cup win­ner cre­den­tials from those who fall short – and he will have to wait an­other 12 months for those cru­cial Test re­sults.

“Box­ing was pushed into the dol­drums for so long be­cause the best were rarely pit­ted against the best”

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