We instinctively know what it is. That great one-off match. That two or three match test series between two top teams at the international level.
This year’s Lions test series against New Zealand was the ultimate in test match fixtures. It had everything. A win, a lose, a draw; tries, controversy and a lot of great play.
World Rugby’s move in recent years to play three-match series between northern and southern hemispheres such as the England vs Australia test series last year was another example of a top-level test series. It really worked. But what if either of these two teams were to play lesser opposition. Would Australia play Italy or even any of their Pacific neighbours in a three-test series? Probably not.
The Autumn International window seems a little uneven in terms of tests. The All Blacks playing against the anachronistic Barbarians last week. Was this a test or not? If it was, then there was very little to play for. There seemed to be poor crowd participation and an even less engaged TV audience. It’s not 1973 anymore, things need to move on a bit. If the Barbarians team is not made up of the best players in the world playing against one of the top international teams then there really isn’t any point in playing.
All the while, progressive rugby nations like Georgia or Japan often find themselves excluded from this static arrangement.
Defining test rugby
Would world rugby be better off defining what test rugby is for all concerned?
Nations such as Samoa, Fiji, Italy or Canada often simply make up the numbers. They often fill in the week before a top tier team has a match against another top team. The only reason Samoa played NZ this year is because it neatly fitted in before the test series against the Lions. This system doesn’t really suit either side and shows a lot of disrespect to so-called smaller nations like Samoa, whose participation in rugby over the years has made the game what it is today. Think Bunce, Umaga or Tuilagi to name but three from this incredible rugby island.
Many international matches are inherently unequal with the result a formality and the name of the game is decided by the bigger team who invariably blood new players, try some new moves and try not to get injuries before bigger opposition comes to town. It can’t be enjoyable for any of the players, the spectators know it’s not going to be a real contest and the TV audiences are unenthused.
A possible solution to this inequity may be taken from another sport. Cricket, in terms of nations, test level and even playing conditions has a better system. Test matches are played between national representative teams with test status. The top ten teams in the world are classed as test teams and play each other on this basis. Tests are regular, fixed and equal in all regards. Test cricket teams, by and large, also play the same number of tests per year as other test teams. Perhaps rugby could rank international teams in a similar fashion and provide the top ten or so international teams in the world with test status.
This is sadly not the case in international rugby right now. Tier one and two teams play up to 12 or 13 games a year while all other international teams play far fewer games than that.
Another possible solution would be to combine certain international teams from localised geographical areas, to play together as a test team.
The Pacific Islands would be the first place to start with this approach, but it would not be limited to that part of the world. There could be a European team minus the 5 original 5 nations teams. This test team could include players from Italy, Spain, Georgia, Netherlands or Romania. There could be an Asian test team with Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, North & South Americas (excluding Argentina), Africa (excluding South Africa).
To make these new test teams competitive against the Springboks and All Blacks of the world, certain structures in terms of competition, club considerations and preparation time need to be catered for. If World Rugby is serious about growing the sport, they need some new ideas around the international game.
A progressive system, as suggested above, could keep players at home. And it could still allow them the opportunity to play at the highest level. Players deserve more from their governing body and if World Rugby purports to be all about integrity, respect and discipline then they have to address the situation now.
After RWC 2019, a global rugby season is supposedly going to change the game for the better. Perhaps this is the right time to look at the question of test rugby more closely.
Author: Kieran Gleeson