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Revive stop-off Tests to help tier-two nations

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Roar Guru
20th September, 2019
65

Back in the day, it was fashionable for teams to include stop-off Tests in minor rugby-playing nations during overseas tours, and this undoubtedly helped the development of the sport in those places.

The practice was especially common in the pre-air travel era. New Zealand played a couple of games in British Columbia on the way home from each of their first three tours of Europe, for example.

The Kiwis won all of them comfortably enough, though the scorelines were significantly closer in 1935 than they had been in 1905 and 1925, indicating some degree of improvement on the part of their hosts.

These teams also made stop-overs in the Pacific Islands. The 1913 All Blacks, returning from a full-scale tour of North America itself, are known to have played an unofficial match against Fiji in Suva.

The New Zealand Rugby Museum website states the All Blacks won 67-3 after conceding an early try. “Storr opened the scoring at the beginning of the game and try upon try and goal upon goal was scored till the whistle blew with the score 67-3.”

Wikipedia mentions a scoreless draw between a scratch team and the All Blacks in Rarotonga, Cook Islands in 1924, as the so-called Invincibles were on their way to Europe. No doubt more of a scrimmage, it could “never have been considered an official international,” the site adds.

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Meanwhile, tours to South Africa often included fixtures with Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and South West Africa (Namibia). The former famously defeated the All Blacks 10-8 in 1949. New Zealand duly avenged this with a 29-14 win on the 1960 tour, and also played a local XV in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, winning 13-9.

After World War 2, international air travel became more regular, but long-haul flights were nonetheless required to make stop-overs, and the fixtures in minor nations continued.

In 1955 the All Blacks played three games in North America, including one in California, while on the 1967 and 1972 tours they played games in North America en route to Europe.

But the practice seems to have been abandoned thereafter, as direct flights to far off locations increased. Indeed, tours in general became significantly shorter. The grand slam All Blacks of 1978 only played half as many games (18) as the original All Blacks had on their tour in 1905 (35).

The 2005 All Blacks, by comparison, simply played four straight Tests. Midweek fixtures against club and regional teams have also fallen by the wayside, though the Kiwis squeezed in a match with Munster during their third grand slam tour in 2008.

And while games in North America, the Pacific Islands and elsewhere appear to have been dropped from the agenda after the 1970s, the All Blacks did play stop-off Tests against other minor rugby nations.

In 1976 they defeated Uruguay 64-3 at Montevideo during their tour of Argentina, in fact – a fixture arranged by the UAR – and in 1981 battled to a 14-6 victory over a powerful Romanian team in Bucharest en route to France.

The trend was not to continue in the professional era, however; the exception being occasional fixtures in the US and Japan, where the All Blacks invariably draw sell-out crowds.

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Rugby Paper columnist Nick Cain wrote this week that World Rugby’s attempts to develop the second tier have not been successful. They are the same teams as they were at the outset of the World Cup three decades ago, Georgia notwithstanding, and practically no progress has been made.

Georgia rugby player Mirian Modebadze

Georgia take on Germany in the European International Championship. (Levan Verdzeuli/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, England’s attack coach Scott Wisemantel has called for the Rugby Football Union to arrange tours of the Pacific Islands, and to share gate receipts with them during the Autumn tours, according to The Guardian.

Perhaps another solution would be a revival of the stop-off Tests. The Rugby Championship teams could play Tests against the likes of Georgia, Romania and Russia on tours of the Six Nations (Argentina might even play Spain), for example, as well as Japan, the US and Canada.

For their part, Six Nations teams might face Fiji, Samoa and Tonga either in the islands or in New Zealand and Australia themselves during tours Down Under (this has already happened). Italy could perhaps play the Cook Islands – a team they lost to in 1980!

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The Six Nations might also include Namibia on their itineraries when touring South Africa (Italy vs Zimbabwe or Kenya instead), and Uruguay when visiting Argentina (Italy vs Chile or Brazil instead).

British and Irish Lions tours, if they must continue, should follow suit. Fixtures against minor rugby nations were a regular fixture on Lions tours for most of the 20th century, in fact. They met Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) on numerous occasions, South West Africa (Namibia) several times, East Africa (Kenya-Uganda) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) twice apiece, and both Canada and Fiji once.

Though most of these were won with ease, the Lions did suffer a couple of surprising losses. They were beaten 8-3 by British Columbia at the end of a marathon 35-match tour of Australasia and Canada in 1966, and succumbed 25-21 to Fiji in front of a capacity 25,000 crowd at Suva in 1977.

Just one or two stop-off Tests per tour would make a tremendous difference to the second-tier nations and help integrate them into elite competition. As Nick Cane observed in his column, simply “throwing money at them” isn’t working. Or to put it another way, trade not aid is what’s required.