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England and Ireland prove why there’s life left in rugby’s three-Test series


With World Rugby currently fighting brush fires on multiple fronts – high contact laws and sanctions, TMO involvement, intentional knock-ons, concussion and global season just some of the main issues – it seems both crazy and inevitable the game is about to stumble into another morass of its own making.

A combination of the introduction of private equity investment and administrators jumping at shadows, has led to what we are being told is the inevitable introduction of a global Test championship, where nations, over something like a two-year period, play each other in two defined international windows, competing for some yet to be determined prize; no doubt to be called something incredibly imaginative like the ‘Insert Sponsor Name Here Global Nations Test Trophy.’

That’s the way things are these days. It’s no longer only toddlers and great-grandad in the rest home who need their meat and veg cut up for them, but the rest of us too. Apparently, rugby fans are no longer capable of gaining enjoyment or meaning from conventional series, and need instead, to have everything sliced and diced and put into the context of a ladder.

If you detect an underwhelmed tone, you’d be right. And let’s not get too far ahead of things. If this was a horse race, World Rugby’s track record of delivering a co-ordinated global season currently lags lengths behind Ian Foster’s winning percentage.

Whether by accident or design, there is no guarantee that anything which requires the sign off of the various nations, competitions, clubs and players associations, will ever happen.

Which isn’t the same thing as stating the reasons why it shouldn’t happen, one being that rugby already has a World Cup.

People can wax lyrical all they like about France’s development under Fabian Galthie, and I enjoy watching them as much as the next person. But from where I’m sitting, South Africa are the reigning World Cup champions and will continue to be so, until the 28th October next year.

How badly do we need to conclusively prove that somebody else might be the world’s best team in the years in-between?

I’d argue that we don’t need to at all, and that whatever structure and process is used to determine it, will be massively flawed anyway.

The second reason is the old ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ chestnut. A saying that has stood the test of time for no reason other than it being most often true.

The weekend saw four three-Test series come to a climax, northern nations versus southern nations, all of them up for grabs before being decided 2-1 in favour of England, Ireland, South Africa and Argentina respectively.

The quid pro quo for squeezing a global, nations Test championship into the schedule is that, in order for all sides to play each other in the time-frame allocated, those three-Test series will have to go the way of the ankle-high, square-toed rugby boot.

Is that a good thing for rugby?

I doubt Eddie Jones thinks so. After a mediocre Six Nations campaign and a first-Test loss in Perth, Jones was 80 minutes away from telling his mum to be expecting to see a lot more of him next year.

Eddie Jones, the England head coach looks on in the warm up during the Guinness Six Nations match between Scotland and England at BT Murrayfield Stadium on February 05, 2022 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Eddie Jones. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

But now, Jones not only has the series win confirmed, but a good handle on which young players he will be using next year in France (think Jack van Poortvliet, Henry Arundell), and which old players he can still trust to go the distance (Billy Vunipola).

Other players made the most of the opportunity to enhance their reputations across the series. Ellis Genge and Freddie Steward already came highly rated, but the decider in Sydney provided them the opportunity to take things to another level, that a one-off, hit and run mission would not have.

The series also did wonders for Courtney Lawes, able to grow into his role as captain, on and off the field. In a strong field, he was my man of the series.

And if there had only been the Perth Test, Jonny Hill would have left Australia known as nothing more than a one-trick, cheap shot merchant. Perhaps begrudgingly, the SCG crowd got to see that behind the ‘dumb and dumber’ persona, Hill actually has game.

If the Auckland Test had been a one-off, Ireland would have left New Zealand frustrated and angry. Even if they’d won, the joy of winning a one-off match surely rates well below coming from behind to claim a bona-fide Test series win in New Zealand; something that very few sides have been able to do.

This series was less about throwing up surprises for Ireland. They might lack the depth of some other sides, but their top flight is of the highest quality.

Here was reinforcement that, with a few adjustments after Auckland, they have a side that is not only smart, and smartly coached, but is capable of playing long periods at fast pace, maintaining their individual skill level and team cohesiveness.

Perhaps another measure is, if there was to be a fourth Test this weekend, it is hard to imagine much money being bet on the All Blacks to level things up.

The three-Test series was also a blessing for South Africa, in particular the loss in Bloemfontein. Players were introduced to Test rugby that may not have been given that opportunity in a one-off match.

Some didn’t stand up, while others did; Kurt-Lee Arendse and Evan Roos showing they will be part of the next wave.

The other winner was Argentina, trailing by 15 points late in their decider against Scotland, the series seemingly flying out Michael Cheika’s window.

The excitement and animation from fans in attendance in Santiago del Estero, to Emiliano Bofelli crossing for the winning try, didn’t tell the story of a rugby public bored with conventional three-match series, desperately in search of greater meaning.

Michael Cheika, head coach of Argentina, catches the ball.

Michael Cheika, head coach of Argentina, catches the ball. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

There was plenty to take for the losers too. The Wallabies depth was tested beyond what anyone could reasonably have foreseen. They continue to grow as a group, and their fighting spirit cannot be questioned.

The team’s values and togetherness are rock solid, and that’s a sound foundation upon which to keep building better combinations and execution in big moments.

Skills development – a huge millstone around the neck of Australian rugby over the last 15 years – remains a major work-on. Try scoring opportunities at this level are hard won; too much so for players like Reece Hodge and Taniela Tupou to cast aside via failure to execute basic passing skill.

But some pieces of the player jigsaw have fallen into place. Dave Porecki looks assured at this level and there was enough of a look at Andrew Kellaway at fullback in the first Test, to believe there is something worth persevering with.

Offered a chance he might not otherwise have got but for suspension and injury, Nick Frost made every post a winner in Sydney. On the other hand, the longer the series went on, the less convincing flyhalf Noah Lolesio became.

Probably the biggest take-away for Dave Rennie over the whole series is that, whatever it costs to bring Samu Kerevi and Marikia Koroibete home, it’s worth every last cent!

Marika Koroibete of the Wallabies is tackled during game three of the International Test match series between the Australia Wallabies and England at the Sydney Cricket Ground on July 16, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Marika Koroibete of the Wallabies. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Despite all of the gloom across the Tasman, this series outcome is an important one for the All Blacks. The obvious implication for many is that if it results in a change of coach, it will have served a purpose, and been worth the pain.

I’m not convinced that will happen, albeit the case for Ian Foster’s retention is not one I’d like to be putting before a judge.

Whoever takes the All Blacks forward from here, they would have been far worse served with only the 42-19 first Test win to work with. That was a result built off trademark All Black brilliance in withering bursts, but it also served to paper over some widening cracks.

If there was ever any doubt, there is none now. The gap in innovation, skill execution, pace and fitness, to what extent it was ever there, is no longer. Indeed, where Ireland is concerned, any gap is now in the other direction.

The problem New Zealand has, is that attractive alternative options are few. It’s one thing to prescribe a more direct, bruising approach, but who are the men – man sized with the requisite power and skill – to deliver this?

And when your starting hooker fails to connect with four lineout throws in one half of Test rugby, and players start dropping the ball cold, if the answer isn’t different players, what is the trigger that will restore confidence and cohesion?

Wales got far more from their South African series than almost everyone expected. An historic first win on South African turf which, if calmer heads had prevailed in the first Test, might well have been two.

Which leaves only Scotland, for whom a three-Test series proved to be a bridge too far. Two and 3/4 Tests would have seen them out perfectly.

The saddest – and most important – event of the weekend was the news that former Wales captain Ryan Jones, has been diagnosed with probable dementia and probable CTE.

Jones told ‘The Times’ in London that specialists told him he “was one of the worst cases they had ever seen” and, with regard to his ongoing cognitive function, “I feel like my life is falling apart”.

Here’s the shocking thing; Jones is no old timer, he’s 41.

To reiterate, there are two related, but serious issues at play here. One is the issue of brain injury itself, which can be caused via various means, of which foul play high contact is only one.

Data released this week by Ross Tucker of ‘The Science of Sport’ demonstrated how players are at greatest risk of concussion when ball carrier and tackler both come together in an upright position.

But incidences remain high in lower height tackling situations, just as the cumulative effects of smaller, sub-concussive hits obtained during training and general play remain a concern.

Rugby clearly has much to do to figure out a comprehensive suite of actions and modifications to make the sport safer to play.

A concussion advert during th Six Nations Rugby Championship

(Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

High contact foul play is one of those, albeit it gets the most attention, because of the blunt-force use of send-offs as a means to try to change player behaviour, and the impact that can have in the course of a match.

This area continues to be a mess, and if events in Wellington are any guide, it looks like remaining that way for some time yet. The All Blacks lost two players to HIA’s, Brodie Retallick and Ofa Tu’ungafasi, both a result of unlawful high contact by an opponent, yet referee Wayne Barnes was able to find only a solitary yellow card in response.

Never mind the injustice of Angus Ta’avao watching all of this unfold from his sofa, there is the confusing matter of referees one week being bound to too-rigid protocols that force them, almost apologetically, to send players off as Jaco Peyper did, and the next week, as Barnes did, freewheeling it, seemingly intent on keeping players on the park where possible.

It is easy to understand why Barnes’ approach is popular with fans. And there is nothing to suggest that prior understanding and expectation of a red card and a three-week suspension as a deterrent would have made a skerrick of difference to Ta’avao’s actions; his collision with Robbie Henshaw would have happened anyway. But something has to give.

Barnes remains a referee of the highest order. But with rugby in the process of picking its way through this awfully complex maze, there’s an inescapable feeling that he and TMO Tom Foley might have let Ryan Jones down on the weekend.





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