Alan Watkins: Let's wind back the clock to meaningful tours of old

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The Independent Online

Forty years ago, the prospect of Wales playing South Africa in Cardiff would have enthused the rugby writers not only in my native land but throughout the rest of the country as well.

Wales went on playing the Springboks until 1970, resuming fixtures in 1994. The British and Irish Lions carried on touring until 1980 and restarted in 1997. England made South Africa suffer an even shorter period of isolation, from 1984 to 1992.

We had known about the evil of apartheid since 1948 and for most of the period since, rugby as a game chose to ignore it. This may have been the prudent course to pursue; or it may have been wrong. In this column I do not propose to argue the merits of the matter but merely to point out that in the great scheme of things, South Africa's spell of sporting exclusion was comparatively short - as far as England was concerned, a mere eight years - and that the game cannot claim much credit for bringing an abhorrent regime to an end.

But, in the old days, there would at least have been some excitement about the prospect of Wales, or, for that matter, any other of the home nations playing the Springboks. Today it is regarded as just another game, a part of what are called the autumn internationals (yet autumn is surely over, sadly, when the clocks go back?). In former times it would have been the culmination of a tour which might have been by Australia or New Zealand rather than by South Africa.

In Wales the tour was more satisfactory because the visiting side usually played all four (sometimes it was only three) of the clubs which have since been turned into regions. In England, by contrast, clubs that were even then quite powerful - though not as strong as they have subsequently become - were compelled to subsume their identities in divisions.

There were some famous victories, such as that of the London Counties over the Springboks, and of the Northern Division over the All Blacks. But on the whole the matches never took off. For instance the South-Western Division always failed to function to its potential because players from Bath, Gloucester and Bristol simply refused to work for one another. Time and again the Rugby Football Union was told that this system was inept; always came the answer that it was essential for selection purposes, to give everyone a fair chance.

Today the Premiership clubs would refuse to put up with it; and they would be right.

England against Australia, South Africa or New Zealand at Twickenham would be more interesting, would have some meaning, if it were the culminating event of a short tour. Likewise Wales against South Africa at Cardiff would retain something of its old glory if the visiting side had played, to give them their full and rather silly names, Newport-Gwent Dragons, Cardiff Blues, Neath-Swansea Ospreys and Llanelli Scarlets. There would be no need for the visiting team to complete a lengthy tour. It would be enough if they had played three or four matches beforehand.

I doubt whether it will ever happen again, because the world has changed. Some years ago I wrote in this column that rugby football had yet to come to terms with the invention of the jet engine. By this I meant not only that tours were too long, longer than they needed to be, but also that national teams were able to visit these islands for single fixtures; just as we were able to visit them for the same purpose.

Well, it has happened. The game has indeed come to terms with the jet. The trouble is that the relationship has become too easy and too familiar. I do not unsay a word I wrote on that previous occasion but, alas, a good idea has been taken too far. It is like eating a tin of chocolate biscuits and then complaining about feeling sick. And, in the world in which we live, good ideas tend to be taken too far when there is money to be made out of them.

An apposite example is the regular fixture between England and the Barbarians, a complete modern invention, quite without meaning, designed for no other purpose than to extract cash from television and from gullible fans. Oddly enough, I believe the Barbarians still have a function. To fulfil it they would have to become the home version of the British and Irish Lions. And I believe that if the Lions were playing the Springboks at Cardiff on Saturday, the fixture would arouse more interest than the one which is being played - and deservedly so.

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