Campese fears Test quality eroded by quantity

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The Independent Online

David Campese was always blessed with an acute sense of timing: ask England, who were consistently rattled by the super-smart Wallaby's verbal depth charges before big games, not to mention his very convenient knock-on during the 1991 World Cup final – one of those "accidentally on purpose" jobs that just happened to deny Rory Underwood what might have been a match-turning try. It was no surprise, then, that Campese chose to criticise the increasingly ludicrous over-exposure of international rugby on the day Ireland announced a 13-Test programme for 2002.

The great wing's comments were aimed at his own kind rather than the Irish. Australia, the world champions, have committed themselves to 10 Tests next year, including a two-Test home series against the French in the summer and an end-of-season European tour, during which they will play England at Twickenham for the fifth time since 1997. "Once upon a time, a Test match was something you looked forward to," Campese groaned. "It's very hard to get the quality these days, because of the quantity."

But it is the Irish who are really pushing out the boat. Since the beginning of September, they have played five Tests: three Six Nations games held over from last spring because of the foot-and-mouth epidemic, plus matches against Samoa and New Zealand. On 3 February they will begin a new Six Nations cycle against Wales in Dublin, and once that tournament is completed in April, they will begin preparations for two Tests in All Black country in June. A meeting with Italy has been provisionally arranged for 7 September and there will be two World Cup qualifiers against unconfirmed European opposition later that month – the result of Ireland's failure to reach the last eight in the 1999 competition – before three nice little gallivants against Australia, Fiji and Argentina in November.

Overkill? You could say. Willie John McBride, arguably the finest forward produced by Ireland and certainly the most celebrated, made his international debut against England in the second week of February 1962, and had to wait until 23 January 1965 for his 13th cap. How many matches did he miss in that three-year span? One. Had the formidable Ulsterman played his rugby according to the current calendar, he would have won 200 caps rather than the 63 he accumulated before his retirement in 1975.

Ironically, Campese was one of the pioneers of the 12-month-a-year shift: in his heyday, he spent six months playing in Australia and another six in Italy. But he now believes careers will be shortened by the exponential growth of Test rugby. One of his colleagues in the 1991 World Cup-winning side, the recently-retired John Eales, is also concerned, albeit for slightly different reasons. "The problem is the length of the season," the Queenslander said. "In Australia, our only 'downtime' is December, and that is probably not enough. It's an issue, but not one we can address in isolation. We are not the centre of the rugby world."

England are currently faced with a 12-match programme in 2002, but there is considerable doubt as to how seriously they will take their summer jaunt to Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. The following year, they will be playing almost on a weekly basis – a Six Nations tournament, followed by a summer tour to Japan and New Zealand, a warm-up programme involving two matches with France and, finally, the World Cup proper. We are not talking player burn-out here. We are talking spontaneous combustion.

For all that, the public appetite for quality rugby continues to grow. Newcastle hope to attract a record gate of 7,500 for this Sunday's Premiership match with Bath at Kingston Park – all seats have been sold, and ticket demand is running at unprecedented levels – while Leicester have reported a 17,000 sell-out for their table-topping contest with Sale at Welford Road tomorrow week.