31 Oct

Walk the Walk
by Tracey Nelson
31 Oct 2008

On the eve of the first off-shore Bledisloe Cup test between New Zealand and Australia in Hong Kong, the CEOs of the respective unions fired a small broadside at the IRB regarding the strength (or lack thereof) of northern hemisphere touring sides in the June test window.

For all that was discussed in Woking last year on the length of the global season, and the promises made that French club rugby would finish by the end of May, nothing changed at all in 2008 and doesn’t look any more likely to in 2009 – with the French club season not likely to finish before early June, and UK club sides reluctant to release players for national duties.

For several seasons now the northern hemisphere have been sending under-strength squads to tour New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, yet still expect to see full strength sides from down-under tour up north come November. Crowd numbers at such mis-matches in both New Zealand and Australia in recent years have reflected the public’s view that these "test" matches are nothing more than opposed training runs, and as result gate revenue has declined.

In a joint press conference held by the CEO’s of the Hong Kong, New Zealand and Australian Rugby Unions at the Hong Kong Stadium this afternoon, Australian CEO John O’Neill put forward the suggestion that should under-strength tours by northern hemisphere sides continue perhaps it was time the three big southern hemisphere sides either canned the in-bound June test window, refused to tour the northern hemisphere in the November window or demanded a bigger slice of the revenue from selling out 80 000 seat stadiums in the UK.

Certainly the interest this off-shore Bledisloe has generated lends a degree of merit to this idea, and already an unsolicited offer has come out of Denver in the USA to host a similar test in 2009. Globalisation of the game seems to be paramount in the minds of both Australia and New Zealand, albeit with a view to topping up some fairly empty coffers at present. While NZRU CEO Steve Tew was a little less forthcoming on the idea of canning tours to the UK should the current status quo around the June international test window remain, he did agree with O’Neill that the current situation was less than ideal and that other markets were definitely out there.

With Japan keen to host a Rugby World Cup, it seems logical that taking a Bledisloe Cup test there at some stage in the next two years would not only showcase the game to one of Asia’s biggest population bases but also give Japan the chance to prove they are capable of putting on such and event and filling the stadium.

It remains to be seen how the IRB, and more importantly the controlling member unions, respond to O’Neill’s bold stance on the current status of international test rugby. No doubt there will be some more howls of rage from certain "gin-swilling old farts" but there remains the fact that tours by the All Blacks and Wallabies sell out stadiums wherever in the world they go, so we can only hope that O’Neill and Tew have the fortitude to make the big decisions should it come down to it and do more than just talk the talk.

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