If I can make a sort of rugby political statement, this weekend is a reminder to followers of the game here in Australia who are inclined to bag its prospects that it is vibrant and growing immensely throughout the world.
And next year that worldwide interest and attention will focus on Australia for the tour of the British and Irish Lions.
Right now, though, the interest of the rugby world is focused on Europe where countries major and minor in the world rankings make their annual pilgrimage to the northern hemisphere rugby power centres.
The first matches of the pilgrimage tours are on Friday (European time) with a double-header at Colwyn Bay, Wales, when Russia plays the USA in Wales and Samoa plays Canada.
Then there are a series of internationals, many of which are shown on the pay television channels of Fox Sports: England – Fiji, Ireland – South Africa, France – Australia (also on Channel 10), Wales – Argentina, Italy – Tonga and possibly (there are complications yet to be resolved) Scotland – New Zealand.
There are other internationals in this round as well which won’t be televised on pay television here: Romania – Japan in Bucharest, Uruguay – Portugal which will be played in South America at Montevideo.
The point about all this is to that after football, rugby union is the only other world wide football code. It is the Pepsi Cola of the football codes, admittedly, to football/soccer’s status as the Coca Cola world game.
And to make the point further, rugby teams from the southern hemisphere have been coming across the ocean to the northern hemisphere to play rugby since the famous tour of the New Zealand Native team of 1888/89 which played 107 matches, including the then Victorian Rules football and football in Australia, and internationals in the UK with a squad of 26 players! The side recorded 78 wins, six draws and only 23 losses.
It is fitting that one of the international teams currently playing in the UK is the Maori All Blacks, the latter-day version of the New Zealand Native side.
Like so many later sides from the southern hemisphere, the Native team was perplexed and often undone by dodgy home town team refereeing, especially when they played England and the referee was the secretary of the RFU (the English rugby union).
A British team toured Australia and New Zealand in 1888 playing rugby union generally but Victorian Rules Football in Victoria. This team played 27 matches, drew six and lost just two.
So 124 years later the touring is still going on. It is true to say that these two great tours set a pattern for rugby union that has made touring part of the DNA of the culture of the game.
Coming back to the Wallabies current tour that starts on the weekend with a Test against France at Paris, the UK experts have, typically, written off the chances of the Wallabies.
Ian Payten, who is covering the Wallabies tour for The Daily Telegraph, has an article quoting Paul Ackford, the former England second-rower and the rugby expert for The Sunday Telegraph, suggesting that England will probably lose to South Africa and New Zealand but ‘my head says one win – against Australia … and Wales should pip Australia to bring a month-long extravaganza to a close.’
It seems to have escaped Ackford’s notice and Stuart Barnes (‘Wales will finally beat Australia’) that in the last two years the Wallabies have played Wales five times for five wins.
And here is Sean Fitzpatrick who seems to be an honoary Pom these days: ‘France can definitely beat Australia.’
Sean, the last time the two teams played against each other the Wallabies won 59 – 16 at Paris, scoring over 40 points in the second half.
The point here is that everyone is entitled to their opinions. Even Michael Lynagh is writing off the Wallabies suggesting that ‘both England and France can beat Australia.’
But there should be some respect for the Wallabies in what they have achieved in recent years, like beating Wales this year 3 – 0 in a Test sewries in Australia, as well as drawing 18 – 18 draw with the rampant All Blacks, when predictions are being made.
On The Roar a few days ago I was taken to task for not giving a detailed analysis of the state of the French side and their chances against the Wallabies. It is easier to make this point than to give the analysis, however. The fact is that France are coming together for the first time since June when they lost and won Tests against the Pumas in Argentina.
And French sides are notoriously difficult to predict. As the cliche says, ‘it depends which side turns up for the day.’ In the 2011 Rugby World Cup tournament they lost to Tonga in the pool rounds and nearly upset the All Blacks in the final.
And the last time they played the Wallabies, as I pointed out earlier, they were competitive in the first half and then were a rabble as Adam Ashley-Cooper cut them to shreds in the second half.
So we can re-phrase the cliche, perhaps: it depends which French side turns up for both halves of the Test.
The Wallabies are still three players sort of their best Test side (Will Genia, James O’Connor and James Horwill). The biggest loss of these three are probably O’Connor and Genia, because they are try-scorers. The biggest fault with the Wallabies this year has been the team’s inability to score tries. Genia and O’Connor will help in this aspect – but only next year.
Deans has singled out the French pack as a problem. But it also has to be conceded that if the Wallaby forwards play with the ferocity and intensity and skill they did against the All Blacks, they could easily match the French brutes up front.
And under Andrew Blades, the Wallaby scrum is now on a par with good scrumming teams like the All Blacks, the Pumas and the Springboks. They will have to cope with the new three-call scrum engagements. But from the evidence in the ITM Cup in New Zealand this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.
Hopefully, though, the referee Welshman Nigel Owens will not continue what has been something of a whistling rhapsody against the Wallabies. After a Test against England, the ARU made an official complaint and there needs to be evidence now that Owens has accepted the justified criticisms of his performance.
The other two southern hemisphere powers should come out on top, too. South Africa play Ireland at Dublin with Wayne Barnes as the referee. There are some exciting Boks backs waiting to be unleashed if Heyneke Meyer is prepared to let them have their head and Barnes allows the flow of the game to be expansive.
This same warning or criticism applies also to the Scotland – All Blacks match at Edinburgh. The referee is an inexperienced French official, Jerome Garces who gave an appalling whistle-happy performance in a recent European club match by handing out 27 penalties (shades of Alain Rolland!).
Scotland have played negative, spoiling rugby for decades. Why the IRB would give them a referee who will encourage this negativity and stifle the brilliant, high-tempo game the All Blacks are striving to play is beyond belief.
I hope the fact that the IRB boss of the referees is a Scotsman has nothing to do with the mindset behind the appointment.
Why the South African Jaco Peyper who is refereeing Romania – Japan or Craig Joubert wasn’t given the game is a mystery. Or Steve Walsh.
The southern hemisphere powers have had to put up with northern hemisphere whistle-happy refereeing pedants in The Rugby Championship. It is a bit rich for the IRB to continue to inflict them on the only teams in the world rugby who are trying to produce a result and a spectacle.
In 2010, the southern hemisphere big three played 11 Tests in Europe for 9 wins and two losses. I reckon that this sort of ratio, despite the northern hemisphere referees, will apply in 2012 as well.
So this weekend, it’s game on for the latest chapter of the endless story of touring rugby teams …