How much is too much when it comes to Test rugby?
Rugby hasn’t always been good at getting its offering right. However, with Rugby Australia and its partners doing a solid job of reimagining the second-tier, now is the moment to turn our attention to the game’s top level.
With borders beginning to reopen and confidence in air travel returning, the governing bodies will be looking to resume the usual Test schedule – and quite possibly add to it in a frenzy to fill empty coffers.
It’s an understandable response to the disaster of 2020, but it risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg.
We’ve already seen the long-term damage wreaked by a money-centric approach to rugby. The Murdoch millions looked mighty attractive in 1995 with rugby riding high, not so much a quarter of a century later once a TV paywall and bloated Super Rugby competition decimated audiences and value.
Little money, big ideas
Oddly enough, while sending a wrecking ball through the game’s finances, the pandemic has righted many wrongs.
Remember the early o’clock alarms for games halfway around the world against teams we didn’t really care about? Since Australian rugby resumed in July 2020, every game played by Aussie teams has been at a reasonable hour. There have also been the fiercely fought local derbies we’ve longed for.
We’re about to tick a trans-Tasman competition off the list. A lean and purposeful Rugby Australia? We got that too, along with promises that Wallabies jerseys will be a consistent gold.
Best of all, the annexed Western Force have been warmly welcomed back into the fold and New Zealand given a swift kick in the rump for suggesting that any of our five Super Rugby teams might be sacrificed at the Kiwi altar.
Pasifika involvement in Super Rugby looks like being the next cab off the rank, reviving one of the best aspects of the defunct National Rugby Championship.
Of course, professional rugby can’t exist without a sustainable financial model but, as we’ve seen, less money can foster creative yet disciplined thinking about what’s important and what’s possible.
Such thinking is urgently needed to ensure Test rugby is everything it can be, with Spring tours a prime opportunity for reinvention.
How less is more
In 2018, the last typical rugby year, the Wallabies played 13 Tests. In 2018, they played 14 Tests and in 2017 a staggering 15! This represented almost as many Tests as Super Rugby matches back then.
As anyone with a basic knowledge of economics knows, oversupply kills value. When it comes to a premium product, less is most definitely more.
To preserve the value of Tests, we need to get the number right. That’s something for the experts to work out but, at a guess, ten is probably there or thereabouts.
So that’s the ‘less’ bit. The ‘more’ part of the puzzle involves imbuing each Test with real meaning.
Is there anything meaningful about the November Tests, except on the rare occasion there’s a Grand Slam on offer?
Most years, they’re a collection of seemingly random one-off matches against three or four Six Nations sides, with Wales almost always on the itinerary. Why? How is it worked out? Is there any rhyme or reason? What part does money play in it all?
Why are the Wallabies never allowed the joys of a full three-Test tour of a northern nation in November such as France will experience Down Under in July?
Think of the anticipation that the inbound French tour is already starting to generate. From memory, the last time France toured, in 2014, we enjoyed sell-out crowds. The old Sydney Football Stadium, God rest her soul, was heaving that brilliant winter afternoon when the Wallabies wrapped up the series. Even those not attending in person became caught up in the excitement.
The November Tests? Yawn. Sure, they’re on the other side of the world but, in our technologically connected age, that shouldn’t prevent Australian supporters from sharing in the excitement.
The underlying issue is that there is no excitement. There is no meaning. These are problems even the abandoned Nations Championship wouldn’t necessarily have fixed.
Spring tour shake-up
Home or away, a three-Test tour of a single nation is far more fulfilling than a trio of discrete Tests – a three-course gourmet dinner compared with three quick stops at different Macca’s.
There’s time for narratives to build, player rivalries to emerge and tensions to rise before (hopefully) a climactic, all-to-play-for finale. It’s great for awareness, media clicks and television audiences, not to mention Roar debates.
Fringe squad members and reserves could even play a couple of mid-week games against famous clubs in the host country – say, Toulouse (bonjour, Arnold twins!) and Clermont in France – broadening players’ rugby education and reviving the traditions of the past.
Looking to the future, let’s include the Wallaroos and make it a series of three Test double-headers against the host nation. The narrative only becomes richer and deeper.
Assuming an even rotation between the Six Nations countries, the Wallabies would meet Wales at most every seven years in Wales (given there’s no Spring tour in World Cup years) instead of every year as was recently the case.
The relative rarity of meetings would only increase the perceived value of the tours, not to mention your willingness to jump out of bed at 2am three November Sundays in a row.
Three-Test Spring tours against a single opposition could capture our imagination every bit as much as the July tours, reviving them as real spectacles. Occasional Grand Slam tours could still be accommodated, as extra-special events, perhaps once every 12 years.
Test rugby is the pinnacle but it can only stay that way if we abide by the ‘less is more’ principle, where every match has real meaning.
Take care of the Test goose and the golden egg will follow.