England versus NZ a year too late
NOVEMBER SPOTLIGHT: It’s the match we’ve all been waiting for – and it’s come one year too late.
Rewind 12 months and the stage was set for a mouth-watering showdown. Since Eddie Jones’ appointment as head coach, the English national team had gone through the 2016 year undefeated (including a clean sweep of the Wallabies in Australia) and almost set a new world record after winning 18 consecutive matches (losing to Ireland by 4 points in the 19th match). The All Blacks were the All Blacks – having the odd hiccup here and there but indisputably still the best team in the world.
Fans around the world were anticipating what could have been one of the best matches of the modern era… But it never happened. On the All Blacks’ northern tour in 2017 they faced off against the Barbarians, France, Scotland, and Wales – England were nowhere to be found.
One year later and we finally have the contest we’ve all been craving for so long – but the anticipation is no longer quite there.
A string of average performances has seen the Northern Hemisphere heavyweights fall from their lofty heights of 2017 and we’re now left with the scenario where the match between England and New Zealand this weekend is viewed as just another test match.
That’s not to say there’s no anticipation whatsoever – this is a still a game between two of the best teams in the world. It’s just not viewed with quite as much excitement as if it had been held a year earlier.
Said average results compounded with a number of injuries to top English players means that most viewers will now expect an inevitable win for the New Zealanders. It will be an interesting contest, no doubt, but next week’s match between Ireland and the All Blacks is now the ‘big event’ in November’s rugby calendar.
It’s a cruel thing that we won’t get to witness the Southern Hemisphere’s premiers laying siege to the Northern Hemisphere’s historically most successful team performing at the top of their game but, then again, we shouldn’t be too surprised that this opportunity has been missed.
Test match scheduling is a curious thing, after all. Take New Zealand’s fixtures over the last few years into consideration, for example.
Come to the end of 2018, the All Blacks will have played each Six Nations team at least once since the last World Cup in 2015. They will have played France five times, Wales four times, Ireland three times, Italy twice and England and Scotland once each. The All Blacks hosted Wales and France for a three-match series in 2016 and 2018 respectively – which is why they’ve played the greatest number of matches. This, of course, doesn’t explain why New Zealand have also played Wales and France on their end of year tours when there are other teams that they haven’t had series against.
The same has occurred with the other traditional Southern Hemisphere powerhouses, Australia and South Africa.
In the same time that England will have played the All Blacks just once, they have played the Wallabies six times. The Wallabies’ other matches have been spread amongst Ireland (four games, including a three-match series this year), Wales and Scotland (three games each), Italy (two games) and France (one game).
South Africa have also played England and France five times, and Wales and Ireland four times, with their only game against Scotland coming up in a week.
End of year tours and June tours seem to be arranged completely in isolation, which leads to the somewhat absurd schedules we’ve had. Of course, there are a range of varying criteria that goes into deciding fixtures – and one of the most important in the professional era is finances.
Matches between England and the All Blacks appear to have been discussed every year, with the possibility of including a game outside the regular test window mooted – but these talks seem to be shut down pretty quickly when the respective unions can’t decide on how to split the profits. Last year, the game between New Zealand and the Barbarians was supposedly almost scrapped to fit in an English/New Zealand showdown but, again, finances caused discussions to cease.
The new World League could see to it that we no longer end up waiting four years for a fixture to come around. The proposed competition would likely see the top teams play each other at least once a year – which has its pros and cons.
Whilst there’s no question that a match between two superpowers like England and New Zealand should occur more frequently than it has over the last half-decade, an argument could be made that annualising the fixture could take some of the sting out of the game.
There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing two teams at the top of their games facing off – so giving both teams the opportunity to build up some momentum over a couple of years before hitting the battlefield is never going to be frowned upon.
Perhaps the solution is simply for each of the Southern Hemisphere nations to travel to each of the Northern Hemisphere countries once every two years. Four or five-match end of year tours are common now. Throw a couple of other teams in with those from the Six Nations (say, Japan and Georgia), and it’s easy to see that you could avert fixtures from going stale whilst also preventing having two teams avoid each other for a number of years in a row.
Whatever happens in the future – whether or not the World League comes to fruition – it doesn’t change the fact that last year we missed out on what could have been a spectacular game. Let’s hope that this year’s long-awaited match between England and the All Blacks is still a high-quality test, even if it’s not exactly what we all wanted.
By Tom Vinicombe, @RugbyPass