So long to the Land of the Long White Cloud

 

NEW ZEALAND LETTER:Certainly there is every likelihood Ireland won’t tour New Zealand again until 2024. From a feast to a famine.

IF YOU thought this season was preposterously long – a competitive campaign lasting 48 weeks and entailing a record 17 Tests – then here’s a thought; this corresponding Saturday next June will merely be the first of a three-Test Lions series in Australia which will extend into the second Saturday in July. Ye Gods.

It already appears a little odd to be bidding farewell to New Zealand, conceivably for

the last time in a dozen years (which has perplexed many here) save for the Lions tour in five years’ time. Including the Lions of ’05 and last year’s World Cup, and dating back to the 1997 A/Development (aka the Arrested Development tour) which was finished off with one game in Samoa, some of us have been to the Land of the Long White Cloud eight times in the last 16 years.

New Zealand rugby has experienced an extraordinary player and coaching drain in that time, to all over Europe and Japan especially, due primarily to economic factors.

This has assuredly weakened its strength in depth, but it remains the toughest place to tour, and by the same extension can be the most rewarding in the longer term, as it exposes players and coaches to the highest standards.

Partly, though, it is due to the frequency with which some Tier One countries play each other that prompted the International Rugby Board to foster a more varied and at the same time level playing field. Back in May 2010, the game’s governing body confirmed the new schedule which came into being this June following the implementation of the 2012-2019 IRB Tours and Test schedule.

Their motivations were understandable; uppermost amongst them being one of equity, with less picking and choosing amongst the elite of the world game and thus more opportunity for all.

There were commercial factors, for sure. There always are. But the schedules also integrated the Tier Two countries more, as heretofore the Tier One countries would avoid playing them for commercial reasons and, perhaps, rugby reasons. Aside from the increased revenue for Tier Two countries, this ought to make them more competitive and benefit the world game, not least at World Cup time.

In addition to the return of three-Test series, the IRB also want to encourage expanded tours by the countries from the Six Nations to take in midweek matches – an option which Ireland were not of a mind to avail of in New Zealand of all places at the end of an 11-month season, given how playing resources are so stretched. This would have meant taking another 15 or 20 players at least, which in turn would have meant even more players making delayed returns to their provinces for pre-season training. The Irish Under-21s are also competing annually in the Junior World Cup.

In any event, the net effect of the IRB’s initiative has ensured that Fiji, Samoa, Japan, Canada, USA and Argentina have all been hosting matches in June, and with Scotland taking in Fiji and Samoa after stopping off in Australia en route, this ensured the first inbound Tier One Tests for the Pacific Islands since 2006, when Italy lost in Fiji.

In addition to the IRB Pacific Nations Cup and an expanded November schedule, this will see the three Island nations complete an unprecedented calendar of Test matches in 2012. November matches will include Samoa playing Tests against France and Wales, Fiji playing England and the Irish Wolfhounds, and Tonga facing Scotland and Italy.

All of this will also increase opportunities for the Pacific Islands to gain IRB World Ranking points as well as making them more competitive in the 2015 World Cup, with Tonga and Samoa having already qualified in advance of the draw next December due to their results at last year’s tournament when both finished third in their pools.

Samoa are currently ninth in the IRB’s world rankings, one place below Ireland, and the suspicion lurks that the IRFU backed off a full Test against Fiji in part because of the risk of losing to a team ranked below them.

Technically speaking, it is not cast in stone that Ireland won’t return to New Zealand for another 12 years as the current tours and tests schedule, which the IRFU voted for, lasts until 2019. It will then be reviewed. Nothing has been agreed thereafter at this point.

Furthermore, where Ireland travel in June 2022 has still to be decided. Nevertheless, the likelihood is Ireland will not return to New Zealand until 2024, not least as all the tours until 2022 have been pencilled in.

With no tours in World Cup years, and taking on the All Blacks or any of the big three in Lions’ years not feasible, there really is only scope for a tour to one of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa every second year.

Next summer, without their Lions who will be travelling to South Africa, Ireland will go

to Canada and the USA, with the strong possibility that they will take on either the Canucks or the Eagles a second time to ensure three Tests in all. This will be an important, developmental test of Ireland’s strength in depth.

Argentina, whom Ireland host again next November after los Pumas play the big three of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia home and away in their debut season in the expanded Rugby Championship, loom large on the horizon. In 2014, Ireland are scheduled to renew acquaintances with Argentina on their first tour there since 2007, before the latter’s third Championship campaign, for either two or three Tests.

As the World Cup in England rules out

any tours that year, akin to this season, Ireland are due to end a World Cup season with a three-Test tour to South Africa in 2016, thereby bridging what will be a 12-year gap since the last tour there in 2004, after the SARFU and the IRFU fell out over the latter’s preference for New Zealand in the IRB ballot for last year’s World Cup.

Ireland are due to tour Japan in 2017 (which will be given added relevance due to the World Cup taking place there in 2019)

in the same summer the Lions tour New Zealand. As has been evidenced in this never-ending 2011-12 campaign, taking on one of the Southern Hemisphere heavyweights at the end of a World Cup season is a big ask.

Ireland are scheduled to tour Australia in 2018, most probably for three Tests, before the 2019 World Cup rules out tours that year and then another tour to Argentina is pencilled in for 2020. With the Lions off to South Africa in 2021, Ireland might possibly be touring the Pacific Islands that year, with both 2022 and 2024 still to be confirmed.

Pending the IRB review in 2019, some of this might change, but certainly there is every likelihood Ireland won’t tour New Zealand again until 2024. From a feast to a famine.

Ireland’s Provisional Summer Tour Schedule

2014Argentina

2015None (RWC year)

2016South Africa

2017Japan

2018Australia

2019None (RWC year)

2020Argentina

2021Pacific Is (possible)

2022TBC

2023None (RWC year)

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