THERE are many reasons why the southern hemisphere giants have won seven of the eight World Cups thus far – and let’s not discount the painful possibility that they are actually better rugby players – but one of the most obvious rarely gets a mention in the way they warm-up.
Every World Cup in the professional era has been staged in the autumn, ie at the end of the southern hemisphere season and at the start of the northern hemisphere season. RWC 1991 was also an autumnal affair and only the inaugural tournament in 1987 and the South African jamboree of 1995 were held in the May/June slot.
The southern hemisphere eventually won the argument mainly because autumn is a much better slot commercially and for TV. The incredibly crowded summer months feature Test cricket, the French Open, Wimbledon, the Open Golf, Royal Ascot – all of which require wall to wall daily coverage – not to mention athletics and a football World Cup every four years.
Which brings me to the RWC warm-up matches which kicked off yesterday and continue this afternoon when England play Wales at Twickenham. While the southern hemisphere teams fight out a shortened but meaningful Rugby Championship before concentrating on Japan, the Six Nations sides stage some of the most unsatisfying and frustrating Tests imaginable, as they do every four years
And all this after a summer of interminable camps and diversionary activities, days out sailing with the yotties, living rough with the SAS, hiking in the Alps, romping with the marines, getting burnt to a cinder in Treviso, surfing in Portugal, organised impromptu ale ups, daily cryo chambers, flotation tanks and what have you.
Heaven forbid that professional athletes and grown adults be trusted to put their feet up and get their first proper rest in years and reappear late in July gloriously refreshed and in decent nick for a short sharp top up before showtime.
And what of these warm-up matches? Can you remember the score of a single such game over the years without googling it? Thought not. I can’t and I reported on most of them. They are all smoke and mirrors, exercises in futility. To advertise them as Test matches and charge proper admission fees is to flirt recklessly with the trade descriptions act.
And they can be dangerous, the only things that tend to come out of such games are heart-breaking last-minute injuries to players – Geordan Murphy and Leigh Halfpenny come to mind – and wildly misleading performances – either good or bad – against opposition teams in second gear which cloud selectorial judgement. These matches are no good to man or beast and exist largely to raise dosh for the respective unions.
The only time England have got it right was in 2003 under Clive Woodward. First he caused much huffing and puffing in the RFU committee room by taking a fully loaded squad down south to play – and beat – Australia and New Zealand in two eyeballs-out Tests. Oh and there was a midweek victory against a stacked Maori fitted in somewhere as well.
Of the warm-up matches that had been organised Woodward only placed any relevance on one, telling Bernard Laporte way in advance that he would field a Gun XV for their home match against the French but would be sending a largely Second XV for the first game against Les Blues and another match against Wales. Indeed some of those involved wouldn’t be travelling to Australia for the World Cup.
Surely the Six Nations teams need to go back to a short early summer tour – the Pacific Islands, Georgia, Japan, North America – in which they perhaps rest five or six key players – before bulding up to one full-on Test at the end of August-early September for the Gun XV.
To up the ante let’s put a proper trophy at stake. So England should play Scotland for the Calcutta Cup just as Australia and New Zealand play for the Bledisloe Cup outside of the Rugby Championship. France and Italy have the Garibaldi Cup to fight over and frankly Ireland and Wales hate each other’s guts so much these days that silverware is superfluous.
And if the coach really does feel the need for a second game it should be a snarly behind closed doors trial between his Probables and Possibles.
Meanwhile the thought that these warm-up games should count towards the world rankings is perverse. You cannot persuade me that Ireland v Italy yesterday was remotely representative of the teams they will be fielding come the World Cup.
BRENDAN GALLAGHER / Getty Images
Comments are closed on this article.