SOUTHERN BIG BOYS BACK ON EURO TOUR
NOVEMBER’S here and with the accompanying chill come the Autumn Internationals when rugby union’s southern hemisphere heavyweights, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, world-ranked 1-2-3 respectively, invade the British Isles with all guns blazing to remind uppity European nations just where the powerhouse of the sport burns brightest – the fulcrum that will never be extinguished despite the odd momentary flicker or two, an opportunity to reaffirm that any spark of an ascendancy-shift northwards is just another illusion, a dream destined to perish like so many before.
Reigning world champions South Africa embark on an ambitious and demanding schedule, starting with a visit to the Principality Stadium in Cardiff to lock horns with current Six Nations champions Wales, followed by a trip to Edinburgh to take on resurgent Calcutta Cup holders Scotland, and then it’s a repeat of the 2019 World Cup final, with Twickenham the amphitheatre, to go head to head with an England side thirsting for revenge, an opportunity to right that shameful 32-12 final collapse in Japan.
Memories of that tame surrender are still raw to this correspondent, having had a lumpy bet on Eddie Jones’ boys pre-tournament at odds of 8/1 to go all the way, and having disposed of the All Blacks in the semis, in my mind I had already banked the winnings, but, alas, for whatever reason England failed to turn up for the final and my once neatly folded and indexed betting slips finished up shredded, torn and tear-stained in the bin. Ouch, that pain still lingers!
South Africa start their tour of the UK buoyed by the summer series win over the visiting British and Irish Lions, a somewhat fortuitous 2-1 victory for the Boks that owed much to Lions’ coach Warren Gatland’s insistence on going head-to-head against the host’s power game rather than employ the famed running style that has long been the Lions trademark and has served them so well down the decades. Gatland’s strategy was obvious from pre-tour with the dizzying decision to leave Johnny Sexton, the world’s most creative flyhalf, at home in Dublin and then, inexplicably, as brutal onfield battle raged, to exile Owen Farrell, England’s fiercely combative captain, to the replacement bench.
With tough games over 14 days, opening with Wales on 6th November, eyeballing Scotland at Murrayfield a week later and then the Twickenham showdown, certainly no one can accuse South Africa of shirking any challenge on this tour, and a clean sweep for the Springboks over three of the home powerhouses would be catastrophic for the reputation of the Six Nations championship, unquestionably the world’s most popular rugby tournament.
Australia arrive in the UK for successive weekend dates with the same three opponents and despite enduring a double drubbing from the All Blacks in the recent Rugby Championship they still finished runners up in that tournament, comfortably ahead of South Africa, in the process beating the Boks twice, the team that had shattered England’s World Cup final dreams and shot down the British and Irish Lions – food for thought for the home nations, an Aussie hat-trick would be unthinkable, whilst the thought of sending the ultra-confident Wallabies, who all appear to be imbued with the “Crocodile Dundee” mindset, limping back Down Under with their didgeridoo between their legs, is very enticing indeed.
Reigning Rugby Championship holders New Zealand commence the European part of their tour with a mouth-watering clash with current Six Nations champs Wales at The Principality, followed by a leisurely trip to Rome to inflict more ignominy on whipping boys Italy, whose continued participation in the Six Nations has recently come under scrutiny following a disastrous run of 30 straight defeats since the Azzurri’s last victory, over Scotland, six years ago. With South Africa waiting in the wings as a possible replacement and making less than subtle overtures to be admitted to Europe’s beloved tournament, it’s way past time to get the House of Rome in order.
The mighty All Blacks then head to Dublin’s fair city to face an Ireland side who have promised much but ultimately failed to deliver on the big occasions – a monster test for the Men in Green to prove that this time there’s substance to the positive vibes emerging from the Aviva and not just another pipedream. An exciting date with France in Paris concludes the Kiwi tour and a brilliant month-long rugby extravaganza ends.
Sadly, rugby has joined football, boxing, snooker, darts and motor racing in selling the sport’s crown jewel events to the highest bidder, on this occasion TV coverage has been bought by an obscure internet outfit called Amazon Prime, and only the Ireland games can be seen on free-to-air terrestrial television. More money in the coffers but less audience – a scandalous short-sighted decision by the men in suits who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. Amazon Prime subscription costs a monthly fee of £7.99 to add to the sky-high Sky Sports and BT bills. No thanks, it’s time to pop down the pub and watch. Cheers!