Thursday, November 6, 2014

International Rugby: Rethinking June Tours

Photo Jose Lagman Rugby Canada
Played every November excluding Rugby World Cup years the November internationals see European nations hosting incoming test teams from across the globe. It is a time when not only southern nations such as Argentina, Australia, Fiji, Namibia, New Zealand, Samoa, South Africa and Tonga tour the north but also when Canada, Japan and the USA do so. The result is test rugby across the European continent with most countries playing three test matches but some competing in four or even five. The reverse tour occurs in the month of June but the structrure does not deliver the same experience. This could, however, change with June having a more global feeling to it by having more teams playing matches in more locations including North America.

Following the record-breaking sell-out test match in Chicago the CEO of the IRB, Brett Gosper, has called for the United States to play host to a Six Nations test match. Such a possibility does not sit well with the Welsh Rugby Union, though, with CEO Gareth Davies having said that relocating a fixture across the North Atlantic would cause a revolt.

In addition to local fans missing out on seeing their team play at home the ability of all Six Nations teams to sell out home matches, and do so by charging high prices, implies that Gosper's suggestion is simply not required. Moving a fixture would be done primarily because there is more on offer from doing so than by playing at home. 

Team's could charge appearance fees or split the gate takings and also make a healthy taking from television rights and sponsorship but, ultimately the North American market is better suited to having the USA Eagles and Canada both playing an increasing number of reputable test matches at home than is the case at present.

In addition to Chicago's Soldier Field BMO Field in Toronto (pictured above) has attracted strong crowds for home fixtures v Ireland, Italy, the Maori All Blacks, Scotland and the USA. Houston and Philadelphia have hosted the same fixtures in the USA and have also done so with strong attendances. The expanding market is therefore suited to more incoming tests and it would, arguably, be a win-win for Six Nations teams.

The November tours this month will see England and Wales both hosting four tests at their respective home stadiums, France, Ireland, Italy, Romania and Scotland will play three home tests while Georgia will play two at home and one away against Ireland. The home tests each November are accompanied by home matches in the Six Nations and European Nations Cup tournaments. 

The structure could be altered to find a balance in June making the tours closer to November's orientation. The one unavoidable difference is that Europe is one continent and is relatively small. In June European teams play in Japan, Oceania, Argentina, North America and South Africa. It is because of this geographical spread that series rather than one-off fixtures being the norm. New Zealand, for instance, hosts three test tours compared to Wales in November hosting four different teams. 

The way forward would appear to be to balance what occurs in Europe with the existing format utilized at present in June. Scotland's June 2014 tour offers insight into how this could, and arguably, ought to be done. Scotland played tests in Houston, Toronto, Córdoba and Port Elizabeth. It, in other words, was a November-configurated tour but one taking in three continents. 

Distances dictate that European teams playing in Australia or New Zealand must take two planes. Contrary to playing in Argentina, Japan, South Africa or North America there are no direct flights from Europe to Oceania. This reality offers a viable solution to reorganize the June fixtures with two teams playing in North America and one in Japan en route to Oceania. The same applies to teams returning.

A four test tour is therefore workable and ought to be looked at. It would benefit the Tier Two nations extremely while also providing equilibrium to the visitors thus justifying a fourth test match. The June 2016 international window has Ireland confirmed as playing in South Africa, France in Argentina, England in Australia and Wales in New Zealand. Reports also indicate that Scotland will play in Japan and Italy in North America.

As shown in the following table touring sides from Europe would all be able to play four matches and do so by preventing long-distance travel from being a deterrent. England could play in Canada on its way home from Australia while Wales could play both Samoa and Fiji in addition to having two tests in New Zealand. Similarly France's issue surrounding the Top 14 final could be decreased by playing Uruguay before Argentina and the Springboks.

Tourist
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
England
Australia
Australia
Australia
Canada
France
Uruguay
Argentina
Argentina
Sth Africa
Georgia
Argentina
Uruguay
Chile
Brazil
Ireland
Namibia
Sth Africa
Sth Africa
Argentina
Italy
Canada
USA
Fiji
Samoa
Romania
Sth Africa
Namibia
Namibia
Uruguay
Scotland
N Zealand
Fiji
Japan
Japan
Wales
Samoa
N Zealand
N Zealand
Fiji

The format would end the North Americans limitation in having just one fixture against a Tier One match in the year 2016. The Pacific Nations Cup could be organized to accomodate tours. As has taken place previously Fiji, Samoa and Tonga could have some matches outside of the release window as could Japan, Canada and the USA. Such a set-up would free-up dates to receive Six Nations teams. This is simplified with Tonga lacking the means to host international rugby.

Also being addressed would be the IRB Nations Cup and Tblisi Cup which has seen Romania and Georgia play at home, thus lacking touring opportunities. There is room, as demonsrated below, for both to play in the Southern Hemisphere and South America and Southern Africa are both realistic destinations.

Home
Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4
Canada
Italy
Japan
USA
England
USA
Japan
Italy
Canada away
Italy
Argentina
Georgia
France
France
Ireland
Japan
USA away
Canada away
Scotland
Scotland
Australia
England
England
England
Wales
N Zealand
Scotland
Wales
Wales
Tonga
Fiji
Tonga
Scotland
Italy
Wales
Samoa
Wales
N/A
Tonga
Italy
Sth Africa
Romania
Ireland
Ireland
France
Namibia
Ireland
Romania
Romania
N/A
Uruguay
France
Georgia
N/A
Romania


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