In the perennial struggle between domestic sport and international, more exquisitely poised in rugby than anywhere else, this weekend marks the opening of the latest window for the international game to set out its stall. The merchants mean business, too, if the strength of the teams announced, so often depleted at this time of year, is anything to go by.
If international rugby gets its way, every other year we will see yet another tournament of meaning and intensity crank itself up on this first weekend of July, in a desperate bid to hold off the encroaching power and influence of the domestic game. Only every other year, though, because rugby already somehow crams into its quadrennial calendar a Lions tour and a World Cup, beyond the Six Nations, the Rugby Championship and all the myriad domestic duties your average international rugby player has to negotiate.
In between all these, the plan is to crowbar in a biennial tournament of the stars, taking in the 12 major rugby powers, a sort of World Cup, only not called the World Cup, just played relentlessly each year either side of the one that is called the World Cup. Which we think will still be the one that really matters, but who knows by then.
This weekend, though, what feels a more traditional format begins, with teams traveling to the other side of the world for a Test series of meaningful length against one team. All four home unions begin three-Test tours of their respective host nations in the southern hemisphere for what is actually the first time. Could also prove the last.
Most noise will focus, inevitably, on England’s tour of Australia, but the connoisseur’s choice is Ireland’s of New Zealand. Ireland are getting quite used to everyone’s “utmost respect” these days, an honor that has been extended to them for some years now, but the fact remains they have never won in New Zealand. The fun and games will kick-off in Eden Park, where New Zealand have not lost since the French won there at this time of year in 1994.
France have only two Tests this July, in Japan. Whoever wins in Eden Park will leapfrog them into second place in World Rugby’s rankings. If Ireland (currently in fourth) manage it, they will be perilously close to regaining the top spot they ascended to for a tantalising fortnight just before the 2019 World Cup. They actually would attain top spot, in the event of the weekend’s unlikeliest victory, Wales over South Africa.
Both camps in Auckland have suffered disruption this week, New Zealand’s so much so that we have been presented with the delicious development of Joe Schmidt’s call-up as stand-in coach, while Ian Foster and two of his deputies do their time in isolation following positive Covid tests. There have been two further positives among New Zealand’s playing staff (centres David Havili and Jack Goodhue). Ireland are down too, with Mack Hansen testing positive and Iain Henderson and Rob Herring picking up injuries.
Cian Healy was carted off with a twisted knee in Ireland’s 32-17 defeat to the Maori on Tuesday, but he seems to have recovered sufficiently to assume his place on the bench this weekend. Otherwise, Ireland are pretty much at full bore, led by Johnny Sexton and hoping to make further inroads into their historically impoverished record against the All Blacks after three wins, their first ever, in the last five Tests against them. New Zealand, meanwhile, look very experienced up front and at half-back, but they name two debutants in their squad. And what names they are. Leicester Fainga’anuku starts on the wing, and Pita Gus Sowakula, the Chiefs No 8, is on the bench.
The theme of southern-hemisphere experience is maintained elsewhere. South Africa have picked a characteristically monstrous team, packed with World Cup winners, for their first Test against Wales, while Argentina have gone similarly full-bore for theirs against Scotland. Wales give a first cap to Leicester flanker Tommy Reffell, who will line up against Leicester teammate and fellow English champion, Jasper Wiese, at No8 for the Springboks. Alun Wyn Jones’s 150 caps will weigh heavily on Wales’s bench. Scotland have picked Rory Hutchinson, the Northampton centre, at full-back and give a first start to Edinburgh flanker Luke Crosbie.
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