As we reflect on the Rugby Championship just gone and Southern Hemisphere teams prepare to head north for spring tours, consider this – what would it be like if Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina travelled north as one side and took on the North together. What if there was a SANZAAR equivalent to the British and Irish Lions?
No research identified a common, suitable animal across the three continents and rather than coming up with some grotesque chimera like the Wallapokiwi, let’s just call them the SANZAAR All Stars – worryingly no worse than the marketing team at SANZAAR could do themselves based on previous performance.
Does the Lions concept still work?
Before we talk about who would make a 2021 All Stars starting XV, it’s worth asking the question – is there still a place for such a collaborative touring concept?
Whilst the most recent Lions series against South Africa drew heavy criticism for the style of play from both sides, the Lions themselves have a long and illustrious history – longer in fact than Test rugby between England, Australia and New Zealand.
Whereas England and Australia didn’t face off in a Test match until 1909 and Australia and New Zealand’s first clash was played in 1903, the first Lions tour set sail in 1888. The 21-man squad proceeded to play a 35 match tour across eight months in Australia and New Zealand which included games of rugby and even seven games of Australian Rules Football.
The modern day version of the Lions, with their tours south every four years, has continued to find a place in an already jam packed schedule. It has its detractors but there are plenty of fans, pundits, players and administrators who believe strongly in the value and honour of the Lions concept.
Those who have played for the Lions have often regarded it as one of the highest accolades in their career. World Cup winner and 77 Test veteran Matt Dawson refers to the Lions as the pinnacle. “In rugby terms you’ve made it. There is nowhere to go, and in very, very few walks of our lives do we ever get to somewhere where there is nowhere left to go,” said Dawson ahead of this year’s South Africa series.
The stories, the heroes, the villains and some great rugby moments – yes the Lions have a place in today’s rugby world. And imagine if there was a Southern Hemisphere version – bringing together the greatest players of the time and setting them the challenge of bonding and winning as they take on the intensity of an overseas tour.
Imagine if this side had existed for the past 30 years already and think about the combinations that we’d have been able to see play together. Richie McCaw and David Pocock lining up in the back row. A young Joost van der Westhuizen passing out to the experienced Michael Lynagh. Brad Thorn and Victor Matfield dominating the line out and destroying any ball runners that came down their channel.
Who wouldn’t want to see those sorts of combinations playing together?
What would these All Stars tours look like?
It’s late June 2024. The World Cup was a great success and the Super Rugby competition has just had its grand final. The All Stars are heading north to France to play the first SANZAAR AS Series and the whole rugby world is caught in a sense of anticipation.
The All Stars will play three Tests against the French with five warm up games against the very best from the Top 14 league. Previous European Rugby Champions Cup winners Toulouse and Toulon are desperate to make history as they take on the best of the Southern Hemisphere whilst previous Top 14 Champions Clermont and Castres are looking forward to seeing if the Southern forwards can handle the battering ram of French domestic pack play.
Meanwhile back down south, the SANZAAR nations host teams from the north in the usual way and use the opportunity to develop younger players ahead of The Rugby Championship.
Rugby pundits and fans are all debating whether the talent of the All Stars can genuinely come together as a team and not just 15 talented players. Will coach Steve Hansen be able to overcome the national tribalism and find a way to get Aaron Smith to connect with (ahem) Quade Cooper at fly half?
Four years later, after a memorable tour, the All Stars are off again, this time taking on England at Twickenham in a best of three series and club sides such as Saracens, Harlequins and Exeter Chiefs in the mid week games. The vineyards and wine aren’t quite as good as on the French Tour of 2024 but the beer is going down very well and the rugby is something special.
#TOP14 – J19
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The All Stars Selection Conundrums
If you were picking an All Stars team right now – who would get the nod? Off the back of the Rugby Championship there have already been some tantalising lists created of the best XV the Southern Hemisphere has to offer including a great piece for The Roar by Geoff Parkes that got everyone talking.
But the All Stars aren’t about the best players from one tournament – they are about a group who can come together for one tour; who can shake off their national pride for a few weeks and find a new identity together, not as Australians or Kiwis or Saffers – but as All Stars.
There are some exciting challenges when it comes to selecting a starting XV for that crucial first Test.
Who makes the back row for example? As a huge fan of Sam Cane, the Kiwi flanker would be given every chance of getting back to fitness and if he had a good Super Rugby season behind him then he’d be on the team sheet.
Michael Hooper might not have made the run on side at the beginning of this year. He always gave everything on the field but there were questions over just how effective he was and he still struggled with some of the onfield leadership responsibilities especially around decision making in key moments.
But his 2021 for the Wallabies after his Super Rugby break has seen him improve in almost all aspects of his game and he deserves a starting spot in the All Stars.
You’d have to start Siya Kolisi – partly because of his ability but also for other reasons that will become clear later on. As Geoff Parkes explains though in his piece, Akira Ioane had one arm in the jersey before the Boks made him look just good, rather than great, and Pablo Matera has a lot of credit in the back despite a poor TRC. Duane Vermeulen is not the player he was two years ago so he misses out.
So that leaves number eight. There’s arguably no clear winner here. The easy choice is to give the jersey to Ardie Savea and he wouldn’t let you down but it’s not his natural position. Has Rob Valetini done enough to jump ahead of Savea? Savea gets the nod if I was making the call.
What about at scrum half where you’ve got two of the current best No.9s in the world going head to head? Aaron Smith v Faf de Klerk is a great battle when they play against each other but who do you pick when you can only have one?
Faf is not in his 2019 form that’s for sure and Smith continues to deliver at the highest level so he’d get the start. But Faf would be there coming off the bench and the game plan would be for him to terrorise tired defences with his running game and lay off the boot quite so much.
When it comes to the wings there are a sweet shop of choices to consider. A fit Cheslin Kolbe would surely get one wing but what do you then do with Marika Koroibete, red hot Andrew Kellaway, Sevu Reece and Will Jordan? Five players – two wing spots.
Final question to consider – who gets the honour of leading the first All Stars tour? You might well have four international skippers in your pack with three of them in the back row. But only one can wear the armband.
Savea hasn’t cemented his reputation as a great leader yet, isn’t a lock for a starting XV position and so is out of the running. Hooper and Kolisi are both strong leaders but with his success at the highest level over the past couple of years Kolisi will make a good skipper for the All Stars. This also means he is going to get one of the back row slots as well.
With all that in mind, here’s the All Stars XV who would take the field to play France right now…
1. Steven Kitshoff
2. Malcolm Marx
3. Taniela Tupou
4. Brodie Retallick
5. Eben Etzebeth
6. Siya Kolisi (c)
7. Michael Hooper
8. Ardie Savea
9. Aaron Smith
10. Richie Mo’unga
11. Sevu Reece
12. David Havili
13. Samu Kerevi
14. Marika Koroibete
15. Jordie Barrett
16. Julian Montoya
17. Frans Malherbe
18. James Slipper
19. Lood de Jager
20. Rob Valetini
21. Faf de Klerk
22. Rieko Ioane
23. Beauden Barrett
Time to dream
It would take an incredible amount of logistic and political cooperation and compromise and there are plenty of reasons not to make this happen. But seeing the very best players from the Southern Hemisphere tour and play together would be something very special.