The Autumn tours have certainly undergone a major transformation since the advent of professionalism.
During the amateur era, these were not received every year and tended to involve just one team visiting at a time. The tourists would invariably play two to five Tests, and rarely more than one against the same opponent.
The internationals were regarded as one of the highlights of the season, alongside the Five Nations, Tests among the Southern powers themselves, and summer tours by European teams. They were hard-fought, often played in mud and slush, with scores like 3-0, 6-0 and 6-3 perfectly common. Both sides would be at their very best after months of meticulous preparation.
It took New Zealand six attempts to complete a grand slam tour, achieving the feat with victory over the four Home Unions for the first time in 1978. It is true that arguably the two greatest All Blacks sides to tour during the amateur era were thwarted by cancellations, Scotland’s in 1924, owing to a financial dispute, and Ireland’s in 1967, due to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.
South Africa fared much better, stringing together four successive grand slams between 1912 and 1960, and scoring a combined 198 points to 31 in the process. Unsurprisingly, the Springboks were widely regarded as the best team in the world at that time. However, they failed to win a single Test in 1969, their final tour of the Apartheid era.
Australia, which had struggled for respect prior to the late 1970s, got its first grand slam in 1984. Coming after a series of victories over the All Blacks, this would truly herald the Wallabies’ arrival as a genuine heavyweight in the game, with legendary players such as David Campese, Simon Poidevin and the Ella brothers to the fore.
Toward the end of the amateur era tours by other nations became more common, notably Argentina, Canada and Japan. The Pacific Islands also got involved, having proved their “worth” at the early World Cups, while the Tri Nations began to tour both simultaneously and annually.
More recently, teams from all over the world have started participating in what have come to be known as the “Autumn tours.’ Namibia, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile have taken part during the past few years, meeting teams such as Romania, Spain, Germany and Belgium, while last year’s World Cup qualifying repechage tournament was held in France in the Autumn; Kenya and Hong Kong joining Germany and subsequent winners Canada.
Tests on neural grounds also appear to be gaining popularity, with Japan and Fiji overcoming Russia and Uruguay, respectively, in England last year and the USA edging Samoa in Spain. Some weekends have seen in excess of thirty different national teams taking the field, including practically all of the top 20 or so in the world rankings.
This has provided a real festival of international rugby for the fans. But the evolution of the Autumn tours has been plagued by two issues: Firstly, the World Cup itself appears to have detracted from their importance, and touring teams are often well below their best at the end of a grueling season. Some players are simply rested as coaches take the opportunity to experiment with new blood.
Secondly, the tours are entirely disconnected from one another, giving no overall sense of structure. This may be considered part of their “charm” by some, in an age of increasing tournament overkill. But the sport’s governing body has evidently decided the time has come to remedy this and provide more incentive for teams to be at their best.
Reports this week indicate a 12-nation format is on the agenda, with the Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams being joined by Japan and the USA. This has understandably drawn opposition from other tier two nations, and there has even been talk of a Pacific Islands “boycott” of this year’s World Cup in Japan.
World Rugby vice-chairman Agustin Pichot has expressed his preference for a two-division competition. This would involve 24 nations in total, including the Pacific Islands, and promotion-relegation. Nonetheless, there remains the issue of elitist scheduling, with the top teams unlikely to be relegated and simply playing each other more often than ever.
So often in the knockout stages of rugby tournaments – indeed, most sports if we think about it – the games themselves can become dour, overly-defensive, minimise-mistakes-at-all-costs affairs as teams knuckle down to progress to the next stage by any means necessary.
The line often used to explain why our female rugby players aren’t given an equal showing in broadcast deals, merchandise sales, membership deals, sponsorship and general exposure is that “they don’t have the same revenue power that men’s teams do”.