Time for north to play fair
Keiran Smith
November 10, 2008
John O'Neill, player portrait, July 18, 2008
O'Neill has said enough is enough when it comes to under-strength touring teams © Getty Images

This week John O'Neill pulled out the big stick and threatened all those nasty little northern hemisphere unions for not playing fair.

He is aggrieved that the North keeps sending dud squads Down Under for winter Tests, but then ride the Wallabies cash cow to sell their own autumn internationals.

O'Neill says the time may come when the Wallabies demand a share of the handsome profits they help generate for northern unions, if they persist in sending second (or third) string teams south. He certainly has a point, but what is patently clear in this mess is the irrelevance of the whole current touring structure.

Rugby is becoming more and more like European football, with mega-rich clubs running the world agenda at the detriment of the international game (and Unions who depend on gate receipts to stay viable). While the Six Nations and Tri-Nations tournaments showcase the best of international rugby, the in-bound Tests in the southern hemisphere show where it is all going pear-shaped. Time and again, the northern hemisphere unions offer (feeble) excuses as to why they can't bring their best players to Australia or New Zealand.

Wales coach Gareth Jenkins decided to rest his RWC trump cards stars from touring in Oz in 2007 (which backfired spectacularly as Wales were bundled out by Fiji!), while France sent a "C" team this year, so their top players could contest the French club finals. It is the IRB who has let down the southern unions by not finalising the international Test schedule. At present the southern unions are held to ransom by the North's agenda in seeing these tours as developmental rather than bona-fide Tests.

The problem is compounded by the complete dominance of the Rugby World Cup. Teams prepare for this tournament as soon as the last one finishes, meaning they are prepared to drop "Tests" in between to experiment within the squad.

What's most disappointing is that the fabric of Test rugby is being eroded by this mentality and the IRB are culpable, as they're first in line at the "RWC trough" scooping millions into their coffers.

It's all well and good for the peak body to be fiscally strong, but how healthy is the code when traditional powerhouses such as Australia and New Zealand are expected to survive off the gate receipts of playing France C or Wales Experimental?

The French are due to tour Australia again in 2009 and have assured O'Neill they will bring their strongest team, but then that's what they said for this year's squad too…

Surely, it is time to incorporate these inbound tours as part of a greater overall championship (which would give more credence to the current IRB rankings system) where teams compete for league points over a two year period.

This championship concept would end the practice of meaningless one-off Tests and assist the Pacific rugby nations and of course Argentina, to integrate into the international rugby calendar with a series of competitive Tests.

The winner, as decided by who has the most league points after the two years, could be rewarded with a home game against an All-Stars line up comprised of the best players from the remaining nations.

There would be a myriad of logistical issues to overcome, but at least the paying punter would know they are witnessing proper 'Test' matches and not developmental tours.

Wallabies go bonkers in Honkers

As for the 'Hong Kong spectacular', the Wallabies once again conspired to lose a match they should have won. As in Brisbane, they outplayed New Zealand for large periods but were simply unable to go for the jugular and finish the job.

It didn't help that they had to contend with a whistle-happy referee in Alan Lewis who was determined to hog the spotlight of this fabled contest. Most disappointing in Lewis' performance was his insistence in punctuating the contest with "motherly" lectures to the players, slowing the game to a crawl.

After a dreadful, tedious Rugby World Cup this was an occasion to reinvigorate international rugby and engage with a prosperous and growing Asian market, unfortunately Lewis was the wrong man for the job.

Why did the IRB appoint a northern hemisphere referee for a match that is traditionally handled by a South African, who understands the ethos and style of the two rugby cultures?

Anyone familiar with this fixture knows the two teams play fluent, attacking rugby and are prepared to chance their arm to do so. Mr Lewis, at times seemed hell-bent on blowing the pea out of his whistle, rather than letting two great rivals put on the show they are capable of.

You may call it sour grapes, and it may partly be that, but the refereeing performance still has Wallabies fans seeing red a week later, and ARU officials threatening formal complaints.

However, putting the loss entirely at the referee's feet glosses over the real reason for the defeat, which is simply the Wallabies inability to finish off an All Blacks team on the ropes.

In the end it was the common story of the Wallabies losing their way in the middle of the second half and New Zealand capitalising on their chances (albeit via a 3m forward pass mind you!) to win.

Nothing more, nothing less.

The Italian Job

The Wallabies escaped in Padova on Saturday, with the Azzurri getting within minutes of their first victory over the visitors.

As in 2006 the Wallabies sneaked home, but without the steadying hand of Barnes on the field they looked out of sorts.

The young forwards held their own, but the backline struggled for cohesion after Barnes limped off with a knee injury.

It's becoming apparent that without the Queensland pivot the Wallabies back line will struggle (even with Giteau). Barnes is the best defender in the team and his passing and positional game is outstanding.

His only weakness is his wretched run of injuries that threaten to limit his international career, and the Wallabies will certainly sweat on his fitness ahead of the match they want to win above all others this tour - England at Twickenham on Saturday.


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