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With the Reds season, and his tenure as coach, now done and dusted at the hands of a brutal Crusaders outfit last night in Christchurch, Ewen McKenzie has little under four weeks to prepare for his first Rugby Championships as Wallabies coach. This year shapes up as potentially a make or break tournament for the team, before heading to Europe in November for their international tour. But after injuries have hit many of our players hard, at what point is the ongoing rugby actually too much?
Financially, the Lions Tour has been estimated to have generated approximately $140 million for the ARU at a time when it needed it the most. Ticket sales were through the roof and with approximately 40,000 overseas tourists doing their once-every-four-years pilgrimage to the Southern Hemisphere, rugby interest in the country peaked amongst even those non-followers, captured in the moment by the free to air prime time coverage on Saturday night, ignited by the closeness of the first two tests and swept away by the event. The question is though, how much of that was due to the rarity of such a tour?
“Lions Tour 2013” had matches sold out around the country within days of ticket availabilities, yet after a month of tickets being released for both the Bledisloe Cup and Nelson Mandela Plate matches in Sydney and Brisbane, many seats are still vacant at both stadiums. Let’s not even begin to discuss the Pumas match in Perth.
So where does the interest in rugby begin to wane? Is it because we see a majority of these nations players regularly throughout the year as part of the Super Rugby fixtures? Is it because a majority of the Lions tickets were purchased by tourists? Or is it because, at the end of the season, there is simply too much rugby?
It’s most likely a combination of the above, but let’s examine the last option in a little more detail.
Take 2013, for example. The Super Rugby season started in mid February for the Australian franchises – 15 February to be precise – and once the international tour of Europe concludes on November 30, a solid nine months worth of rugby will have taken it’s toll on the bodies of our top level players and give them respite for a mere ten weeks before kicking off for Season 2014.
Littered in between the Super Rugby and European tour is of course the Lions Tour and Rugby Championships – which means not only tough and physical matches, but extensive travel to the other side of the globe – and that’s not taking into account both New Zealand and South Africa’s local competitions, the ITM Cup and Currie Cup respectively.
The Wallabies, Springboks and All Blacks all have injury lists that can, at best, be described as mind-boggling, with some of the best players in the world on the sideline and unlikely to take part in the four nations tournament in under a month. Although it can be seen as an opportunity to blood up new players and have them gain international experience as a result, no one likes (nor wants) to see the best of the best unable to participate at the highest level.
The recent injury list between the three nations competing in Super Rugby included Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Dan Carter, David Pocock, Scott Higginbotham, Berrick Barnes, Pat McCabe, Jean de Villiers, Frans Steyn, Johan Goosen, Duane Vermeulen and JP Pietersen to name just a handful – all quality players that would generally be considered walk up starters into a 30 man squad; yet all unavailable.
When players the calibre of a Juan Smith end their careers prematurely because of injury, surely someone higher up has to sit up and take notice.
Surely, something has to give.
Let’s pretend though, that player welfare ultimately does not matter to your average rugby supporter. Let’s ignore the realities a gruelling nine month rugby stint can have on men’s bodies and turn our attention to crowd numbers and support.
Let’s think about where the biggest crowds for rugby matches are regularly cited in the Southern Hemisphere: at a rugby world cup and a Lions Tour.
Both of these events occur every four years – coincidence?
To be honest – no.
There’s a lot to be said for an event that happens every four years, compared to every year. The rarity and spectacle of seeing the best of the best compete against each other, similar to an Olympics, is not something that can be readily dismissed. That’s not to say that the Rugby Championships is a competition that should be held every four years; but perhaps SANZAR need to seriously examine the possibility of holding the tournament as a biennial event.
Of course there are both pros and cons to this proposal, but I believe the positives may ultimately far outweigh any negatives.
The international rugby calendar already holds two four year events which our countries participate in – the Rugby World Cup and a Lions Tour year. Let’s automatically strike those years off the calendar for the four nations Rugby Championship and believe it or not, we are left with alternating years.
If it’s a monetary thing, I believe that ticket prices can be adjusted slightly to compensate any income that reducing the fixtures may create. That said, without having the full and accurate costings of conducting a Rugby Championship tournament, that may not be necessary.
I believe fans would be more inclined to pay a slightly elevated price to see test rugby amongst their Southern Hemisphere rivals if it wasn’t thrown down their throats every twelve months. The other positive surrounding a biennial event is that it could be slightly extended so that teams play each other in best of three rotations, instead of two matches. By cancelling twelve matches one year, SANZAR can pick up an extra six the following year. Is dropping six test matches globally really going to make that much of a difference fiscally?
It’s all food for thought, of course, but a point which should be examined in more detail, if not for the health of our players, for the health of the game itself; which ultimately, is where everyone’s hearts and wallets should be.