Back-to-back All Blacks risks devaluing the Tests
The Rugby Football Union have confirmed that New Zealand would be the team launching next year's autumn series at Twickenham – the last round of cross-hemisphere matches before the home World Cup in 2015 – and presented it as headline news.
It was not quite such a show-stopper as the governing body made out because the All Blacks, for so long one of the biggest box-office draws in sport, are in danger of being overexposed. England are about to face them five times in less than a year – they take them on in London next month and play three Tests in the Land of the Long White Shroud in June – and as a consequence, what was once cherished as a jewel in the union game's crown has diminished so much in rarity value that it has become mere common currency. More than half a century separated the first and fifth games between the two countries, and until the late 1990s, meetings remained relatively rare. Now, they are two-a-penny.
South Africa, who will also visit Twickenham next year, are every bit as familiar, while Australia, who open this autumn's programme on 2 November and will be on the list yet again in 2014, seem to play here every other weekend. In many respects, the fourth of the teams pitching up in the capital in 13 months' time – the fast-improving and increasingly threatening Samoa – are the most interesting opponents of the lot.
During this week's launch of the doomed Heineken Cup, one senior establishment figure reminded his audience: "International rugby is still the financial driver of the sport." But others take the view that there are far too many Tests between too few major teams and that inertia is becoming a serious problem. Unfortunately, the top-heavy fixture list has found its way on to rugby's hard drive – and no one in authority knows how to delete it.
Talking of the Wallabies, who will finish bottom of the Rugby Championship if they lose in Argentina on Saturday night, there was another episode of the long-running James O'Connor soap opera. The 23-year-old back, dropped from the Test team last month after a drink-related incident at an airport and currently without a Super 15 deal after being released by the Melbourne Rebels, has had his Australian Rugby Union contract scrapped and will not be offered one for next year. Without a significant improvement in behaviour, he will not be considered for the World Cup, either.
Bath, badly beaten at Saracens a fortnight ago after leaving many of their best players on the bench, will travel light again when they visit Sale for tonight's Premiership game. This time, though, it is not through choice. Dave Attwood and Rob Webber, two front-line tight forwards, are injured, as is the wing Matt Banahan and the full-back Anthony Watson.
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