Canon Rugby in Focus: The demise of the Nations Championship concept means it is the perfect time to give fans what they actually want – and bring back proper rugby tours, writes Jim Kayes.
Barry John saved Grant Fox’s toes.
Fox was nine when the British and Irish Lions toured New Zealand in 1971. As a budding goal kicker, he had been hacking away as a toe kicker.
That changed when he saw John, the Welsh wizard, kicking around the corner during the tour to New Zealand.
“For a young kid growing up on a farm in the Waikato, who played rugby on frosty Saturday mornings in bare feet and kicking the ball with my toes, it hurt,” Fox recalls.
“I saw Barry John kicking and thought ‘that will save my toes’.”
Lions tours are virtually it these days.
No other international team bothers to play anything but test matches, with the All Blacks games against a French XV and the Barbarians in 2017 a rare exception.
They played the Barbarians in 2009, Munster in 2008 and the Barbarians again in 2004.
Richie McCaw played 149 games for the All Blacks and all but one of them was a test match. Dan Carter only ever played tests (112 of them) as did Conrad Smith, who finished with 94 tests.
Compare that to Sir Colin Meads, whose 133 games in black were a staggering amount for his era, but included just 55 tests.
I say “just” because it’s the same number as Sir Michael Jones, Frank Bunce and TJ Perenara – but there are 45 All Blacks who have played more tests.
The majority of those 45, though, have played no more than one or two regular games.
World Rugby has a chance to change that, but it probably won’t.
News that the game’s global body has abandoned plans for a Nations Championship will be disappointing for the Pacific Islands who had glimpsed a pathway to regular tests.
They, along with New Zealand and Australia, were also excited by the financial security the Nations concept brought with it.
But it was always going to be scuppered by self interest.
World Rugby said a consensus could not be agreed upon around timing and promotion-relegation.
Read in that that the Six Nations refused to budge on when they would play, and didn’t want to know about relegation for fear one of them dipped out.
What this does mean now is the chance for rugby to go back, to go forward, and New Zealand should be leading the charge with a call for a return to proper tours.
We have been saturated with tests in the past two decades with 14 a year common, but there is a demand for teams to tour here, play provincial teams and take the game to the regions.
The All Blacks could do the same when they travel.
The match against Munster in 2008 was an amazing occasion and there is no doubt other games against European clubs would be hugely popular, too.
At a time when the game is struggling to engage with fans, in the Southern Hemisphere if not the north, tours could provide the link.
Rugby administrators will talk dollars, broadcasting deals, player welfare and how the season is too full.
What they forget or ignore is what the fans want.
I posted on Facebook and Twitter that the demise of the Nations Championship was a chance to bring back tours. It received overwhelming support.
But it will fall on deaf ears.
The biggest excuse is player welfare – a phrase coaches and administrators like to use, but have they checked with the players?
Did they talk to those involved in the 2008 game in Limerick about what the occasion meant to them? How amazing it was to be involved? How long that game will live in their memories?
These were not the test players, in the main, so their game tally isn’t changing, but it was still the All Blacks that ran out.
Did any administrator canvas the kids in the crowd to see how cool it was to have the All Blacks in town?
We know the answer, don’t we, just as we know how popular tours would be in provincial New Zealand.
No amount of slick marketing can match seeing your heroes playing on the bit of dirt you call home.
Ask Fox and his toes.
As for player welfare, sure the game is faster and the hits are harder than ever before.
But the conditioning, medical care and rehab has improved too, while the squad size has ballooned.
Those who reckon tours will be too tough should have a chat with Ian Kirkpatrick. His tours were relentless. The modern ones wouldn’t be.
His 113 games for the All Blacks included 39 tests and 74 matches, many of them played on two tours to South Africa.
In 1970 he played 16 games in South Africa and in 1976 he played 13. Both trips he played all four tests.
Times are different, there is no disputing that, but perhaps it’s time to look again to when the All Blacks played in places like Workington, Burghersdorp, Swansea and Toowoomba.
And when teams came to New Zealand and played in Nelson, Masterton, Ashburton, Whangarei, Rotorua and Napier.
Rugby’s fans are still there, they’ve just been ignored since the game turned professional.
Now’s the chance to change that.
The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.