20 Oct 2023

Bringing back old tours could restore rugby 'excitement'

5:32 pm on 20 October 2023
The All Blacks are seen performing the Haka during the Rugby Championship Round 5 match between New Zealand All Blacks and South Africa Springboks at Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville

The All Blacks faced the Springboks in their 100th test match in 2021. Photo: Photosport

The prospect of resurrecting tours not seen for years has been greeted enthusiastically by some former All Blacks and rugby pundits.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) has confirmed it is in "early conversations" with its South African counterparts about bringing back All Blacks-Springboks tours.

The idea has surfaced with administrators weighing up the shape of test calendars for coming years.

The rival nations - likely to meet in next weekend's Rugby World Cup final - have played each other regularly since 1996, by way of the the Rugby Championship, which replaced the Tri Nations.

After the pandemic jolted the rugby eco-system in 2020, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) moved its domestic franchises out of Super Rugby into the European United Rugby Championship,

Before rugby's move to professionalism, New Zealand and South Africa locked horns intermittently when touring each other countries during the rivalry's first 75 years.

With a storied and often controversial history during this period, the foes could barely be separated on the pitch and home advantage proved decisive.

The All Blacks were not able to achieve a test series win in the republic, until 1996 when Sean Fitzpatrick's "incomparables" achieved the feat.

The three-match series tacked on the end of the inaugural Tri Nations was the last of its kind, because the calendar became structured around SANZAAR's (formerly SANZAR) annual competitions during each World Cup cycle.

During the amateur era, the Springboks toured New Zealand six times - in 1921, 1937, 1956, 1965, 1981, and 1994 - only once securing a test series win.

The 1937 "invincibles" won 16 out of 17 matches during a two month tour - a first test loss in Wellington their only slip-up.

Former All Black utility Jon Preston said reviving the old tours would be a great move.

"Those types of tours were the pinnacle," he said.

"I played in the World Cup... and there's no doubt that has taken over as the premium event in the rugby calendar.

"So much is geared towards that now and there's a lot of not overly interesting and not necessarily overly important stuff in between."

Preston kicked two clutch penalties as a replacement during the All Blacks' series-sealing win at Pretoria in 1996.

He also came on as a substitute at Ellis Park in 1992, in the first official test between the two countries since the infamous 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand.

Involving the heartland unions would be ideal, but there were commercial realities to weigh up, Preston said.

"I'm a realist and I know the whole international schedule is a very difficult thing to manage these days, so you have to be realistic about that.

"Whether you like it or not, the game is professional and you have to generate income, otherwise you fall behind - so that's the challenge.

"But if you did have a three-test series with... a couple of midweek games in between, I just know what that would do for provincial rugby," Preston said.

Retired commentator Keith Quinn said there would be an appetite for a return of such tours.

Sports commentator Keith Quinn.

Keith Quinn is keen to see the old rugby tours return. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Koroi Hawkins

"My memory banks are filled with the excitement, thrill and nervousness about the Springboks' tours of New Zealand.

"I remember in 1956, newspapers would run big profiles on every player, every night for the 30 days that they were here and... every kid collected a scrap book."

That's a far cry from the modern era, when live radio broadcasts for tour matches are restricted, so crowds are not drawn away.

Quinn proposed the Springboks could play Super Rugby franchises outside the main centres.

"They would draw crowds I'm sure.

"I know it would be tough to organise, because the rugby program is full for players these days, but if they did that it would be a great help to starting the rugby excitement again."

The British and Irish Lions, which tour New Zealand every 12 years, played all five Super Rugby franchises in 2017, after having played first and second division NPC teams in 2005.

Former All Black captain Andy Leslie, who led the team on a 24-match tour of South Africa in 1976, said the game needed a refresh.

Former All Blacks captain Andy Leslie.

Andy Leslie says changes are needed to boost interest in rugby. Photo: Photosport

"We need to rekindle interest in rugby - people aren't following their provinces like they used to," he said.

"To rejuvenate interest within the country, you get South Africa, England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland touring New Zealand and playing two or three test matches, but playing combined provincial teams... that would fill the grounds."

Hurricanes chief executive Avan Lee said it was a great idea, but a lot would depend on scheduling.

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Avan Lee says new competitions can be tricky to schedule. Photo: Supplied

"Looking at the Lions tour in 2017, that was a massive occasion for us to play midweek games," he said.

"You just have to look at the timing and what it would do to the existing competitions.

"If you did it during the NPC, what would that mean for that competition and if it was done after Super Rugby, you wouldn't have any All Blacks because they'd be in camp.

"If you had a team like South Africa, who would have two very good sides, and they played a weaker NPC side, then who is benefiting from that realistically?"

NZR said the current Rugby Championship format is locked in until 2025, but they are talking to their SANZAAR partners about the future.

"There is interest from both unions (NZR and SARU), but it's early days around those conversations."

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