How rugby has changed over the past 15 years. Gone are the days when an international team would go away and tour another nation, playing a handful of midweek games, along with a series of three or four tests.
These tours have been replaced with the so-called more glamorous competition of the Tri-Nations, which pits the top three teams of the Southern Hemisphere against each other in a series of games every year. Or we get teams travelling between hemispheres, playing against a handful of different teams, all tests, no midweek games and no series between two nations.
This, I believe has been a major reason for the decline in interest of rugby and value of test matches. Twenty years ago, you might have your country playing three or four tests a year. They were special because they didn't come around all that often and were a huge occasion when they did. Also, the players and the fans knew, that if they did not win the series against their opposition, they might not get another chance to play them for another few years making each victory even more special and more essential.
These days we see teams playing up to 15 or 16 tests in a season. While this may seem like a good idea on the surface, a deeper look shows that it indeed is the problem for the decline of meaning in testing rugby over the past decade. Each test match should be sacred, but by playing them so often they lose their meaning.
With the Tri-Nations in place each of the top three Southern Hemisphere teams plays each other three times every year. This detracts from the meaning of each individual test as everyone thinks that if they lose this one, then they will get another shot at it next week, or the week after. And then even if they lose those games, there's a new competition next year. If the teams only met once every few years, the wins would be much more special, would bring much more out of the players and would mean much more to the general public.
The way to do this is to scrap the Tri-Nations idea altogether and go back to having teams touring the various countries. Likewise, at the end of the year, instead of playing tests against a variety of countries, you could focus on just one and play a series of tests against that country.
If you throw in some midweek games against provincial sides, you find all the players get more of a run, the public gets to see more variety in opposition and interest and meaning in the games, especially the tests, goes up in general.
It was a great relief to me to see that we are going some way back to this. While we may not be getting rid of the Tri-Nations, we are going to start to see tours instead of the traditional 'June tests' in the Southern Hemisphere and instead of the Southern Teams end of year tour to Europe.
While this will go some way to fixing the problem on our hands, it won't cure it while the Tri-Nations is still in full-swing. If you can imagine we didn't have the Tri-Nations and New Zealand got to play South Africa only once every three or four years, you would find interest and these series would sky-rocket and that each test would mean so much more to everyone because everyone knows that if they lose, it's going to be a long time before you can get your revenge.
With the introduction of Argentina into the competition in 2012, I can't see this happening any time soon. But if rugby tests are ever going to mean what they did all those years ago, canning the Tri-Nations is the first step.
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