The Wallabies are on tour, which makes a refreshing change. It is not that the world champions are strangers to our shores, far from it; in recent years, we have seen so much of John Eales that any half-decent England manager would have claimed political asylum on the great man's behalf and togged him up in a white shirt.
But whatever the Wallabies may have been doing in the professional era, they have not been touring the old country. One long-haul flight, a Test in London and the first plane back out of Heathrow does not exactly make them the modern-day sporting equivalents of Marco Polo.
This visit, then, is a rare bird indeed, for the Australians have agreed to take on both the best of the non-Premiership class in the shape of an English National Divisions XV (the game takes place at Welford Road tomorrow afternoon) and the dark-blue aristocrats of Oxford University, who will all be as fit as fleas as they build towards the one-hundred-and-umpteenth Varsity Match. They will also play the Barbarians at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff at the end of next month – hardly a return to the old amateur ethic, for they are being paid a small fortune in appearance money, but a welcome break from routine all the same.
Of course, the tour might have been a whole lot bigger and better. If the Wallabies are happy to pitch up in Leicester, why on earth are they not playing, er, Leicester? The Tigers are, after all, English champions; indeed, they are always English champions. They would draw a 16,000-plus full house for a tilt at the best side on the planet, and would give their visitors a right old hurry-up into the bargain. The fixture planners have an answer, as always. "The club season is chocker as it is," they say. "No time, no space, no way." But Leicester themselves are attempting to fit in a one-off match with another group of Australians, the Super 12-winning ACT Brumbies. The only thing blocking the tour match everyone would kill to see is a lack of will.
That lack of will is spreading, too – like a cancer through the main body of the union game. Fine words are spoken about touring as a means of globalising the sport, but the words amount to so much piffle. Cynical piffle, too. As Francis Baron, chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, made abundantly clear during a briefing at Twickenham this week, real touring is at odds with oval-ball economics. Given that men like Baron stand or fall by the final figures on the balance sheet, as opposed to the final figures on the scoreboard, the message was clear.
Baron is pushing for an overhaul of the International Rugby Board's current tour schedule, which rightly demands that the traditional powers – Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – visit the so-called developing nations, from Argentina to the Pacific Islands via North America, southern Europe and Japan, on a regular basis. In Baron's considered opinion, a two-tier system should be introduced. "What sort of development is achieved by us going to some of these countries with a full-strength side and beating them by 80 points?" he asked.
It does not take an astro-physicist to work out where Baron is coming from. It cost the RFU the best part of £1m to tour Canada and the United States last summer, and the custodians of the Twickenham purse strings are determined not to be caught like that again. Assuming England fulfil their commitments in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga next summer – and given the choice, they would not go within a million miles of the islands – they will play the minimum number of matches with a side containing as few senior internationals as possible. The reason? There is no money in the islands. "The people pay a dollar to get in, and most of them watch from the trees," said Chris Spice, the RFU's performance director. Charming.
Pretty much the same brand of condescension is now being aimed at incoming Test teams. The RFU wants Australia and South Africa every year – New Zealand too, if they can get them – because these are the teams capable of selling out Twickenham in the autumn. Romania, broken and penniless but proud as the day is long, are also due on the old cabbage patch next month, but they will be greeted by thousands of empty seats. "There is absolutely no point asking teams to undertake tours that will bankrupt them," said Baron. And, he might have added, hit the RFU in the pocket as well.
New Zealand, who have never deigned to play a full Test in the Pacific Islands despite making All Blacks of dozens of naturalised Samoans and Tongans, have used these arguments for years. That they are now being trotted out in Europe is a cause for concern. Rugby league has already discovered, to enormous cost, that three good teams do not constitute a global game. Union has more human resources and a far greater spread of interest: a dozen nations know what it is to play a World Cup quarter-final. But a two-tier system will contract the game, rather than expand it. Economics or no economics, the 15-man code should not go there.
At least the 2001 Wallabies are committed to flying the union flag in Spain; you might even suggest that the tourists are about to experiment with the missionary position, in so far as they will leave Spanish rugby both flat on its back and extremely happy. Next week's Test at the City University ground in Madrid has "no contest" written all over it, but the match will put rugby on the back pages of the local press for the first time in sporting history. Would a second-tier team of "developing" Wallabies have achieved this breakthrough? Of course not.
After Madrid, it is back to Blighty for the serious stuff: a Cook Cup match of considerable significance against a red rose team chastened, not to say humiliated, by a third consecutive Grand Slam faux pas. These Wallabies may be post-Eales and post-Rod Macqueen, but they are the holders of the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup silverware, as well as world champions, and are at full strength as near as damn it. They have a stiletto-sharp new coach in Eddie Jones, a wonderfully resourceful captain in George Gregan – the best scrum-half in the business by a country mile – and spectacular talents in every area of the team: Matt Burke at full-back, Ben Tune and Joe Roff out wide, Daniel Herbert and Steve Larkham in midfield, Bill Young and Nick Stiles in the front row, Justin "How's my old mate Austin?" Harrison at lock, George Smith and Toutai Kefu at loose forward.
Knowing Jones, the tourists will make it new; knowing Gregan, they will make it hard and confrontational. Knowing both, it will be hugely competitive. One of these fine days, if the gods of rugby smile upon us, Australia will embark on a proper tour here – their first in more than a decade. Then, maybe, the Leicesters of this world will do England a favour by carrying out a little softening-up work. For the moment, though, this is as good as it gets.Reuse content