Rugby’s shadow expeditions: The second string sides heading on tour
Rugby is set in its traditions, rightly and wrongly, and it takes an enormous shift in will for anything new to seep into the sport.
But when Irish province and last year’s losing European finalists Leinster announced earlier this week that they would be playing a fixture against an All Blacks XV during November, it marked the latest in a string of similar matches planned between British and Irish clubs and southern hemisphere shadow international sides.
The autumn internationals are a well established part of the rugby calendar – now branded the Autumn Nations Cup – where the big sides from beyond the equator, as well as select others, come to the big six European nations and play a series of coffer-filling fixtures.
The world famous All Blacks, the world champion Springboks, the resurgent Argentina and Australia and others will travel to Europe for a blockbuster month of sport. But this year at least a couple of the sides will bring a supersized squad with their own fixture list.
The All Blacks XV have for the first time ever confirmed a four-match tour which will see them play Canada, Leinster A and the Barbarians – coached by a former Crusaders coach Ronan O’Gara and a current one in Scott Robertson – as well as one yet-to-be-confirmed fixture.
A South Africa Select XV will play Bristol Bears in a midweek fixture as well as Munster in the 45,000 capacity Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork. Both games are already sold out and there is chatter about a further Bok fixture in November.
There are several reasons why this is happening, with the first being the World Cup next year. Coaches want to have a look at as many players as possible in high quality matches and a tour environment.
Furthermore there are financial benefits. Due to these fixtures not counting as fully fledged internationals, the touring side has more scope to negotiate a bigger chunk of income from the match – Test matches hugely favour the home side in terms of gate receipts.
And finally it’s about building a brand. For Munster, they’ll show they can fill a Gaelic football site nearly double their rugby stadium size. For the All Blacks XV, they get a showpiece, fun, event in one of the best arenas in the world – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
And for the Springbok Select sides, their clubs have just entered the United Rugby Championship so it makes marketing sense to play these smaller fixtures and acclimatise players to the environment, but also expose South Africa fans in Britain and Ireland to affordable ways of supporting their team.
But it’s not just south coming north. In July, Scotland played an A fixture against Chile and last year we were supposed to see the same side take on England A, before it was cancelled due to Covid-19.
This autumn, a team labelled Emerging Ireland will play some of the club teams in South Africa. This follows a larger squad heading to New Zealand in the summer, where there were matches with the Maori All Blacks.
There’s a worry that this will dilute the Irish provinces playing in the United Rugby Championship but there’s clearly enough motivation to ensure the tour goes ahead and youngsters are exposed to touring life and stiff opposition.
This autumn has suddenly become extremely congested with not just Test matches but shadow touring games. While some will criticise the extra run-outs forced onto players and the clear intention to make money, others will see this autumn as rugby finally making the most of its product and spreading the game.