DONAL LENIHAN: End of Test rugby as we know it

THERE IS sufficient evidence to suggest that the international game as we know it in the southern hemisphere is under serious threat.

In the not too distant past, the lure of the New Zealand jersey was sacrosanct. To hold the status of an All Black in New Zealand elevated one to a position of reverence in the national standing.

However, serious change is now taking place, not only in New Zealand but also in South Africa and Australia. The problem? The international purchasing power of both sterling and the euro.

Once the lure of an international cap was sufficient in itself to illicit the most passionate response from any self respecting rugby player. For many in SANZAR rugby, while remaining the ultimate honour, it has also become a means to an end.

In the modern game a player can accumulate 30 caps within three seasons.

Not only does that achievement bring about immense personal satisfaction, it also increases bargaining power when one looks to France and England in particular to generate a lucrative contract.

For the first decade of professional rugby, player movement was limited to the experienced international who sought a financial bonanza in the latter stages of his career. The likes of Francois Pienaar, Zinzan Brooke and Michael Lynagh headed for the English Premiership with their best days on the international stage behind them.

This is no longer the case when one considers that All Black sensation Luke McAlister has yet to reach his true potential while the likes of Aaron Maugher, Byron Kelleher, Chris Jack, Carl Hayman and Doug Howlett clearly still have so much to offer the international game. New Zealand are now agreeable to allowing a player who has not played in the Super 14 to become eligible to represent the All Blacks.

Should Dan Carter play for Toulon next season, the All Blacks will still consider him for selection. This represents a sea change in attitude and could mark the beginning of an inevitable shift towards a global season.

Given that Graham Henry has lost 14 of his World Cup squad of only seven months ago, the ‘Carter Clause’ is not a surprising development. When one considers the amount of quality players below international level — including Lifeimi Mafi and Rua Tipoki — currently spread around the Heineken Cup clubs of Europe, the player drain-out must be a major cause of concern.

The problem is not confined to New Zealand with South Africa also having lost several members of their World Cup winning side already to European clubs. What impact will this have on the Lions tour next year?

For years the southern hemisphere’s big three were the teams that all others aspired to. Now, apart from the World Cup itself, those countries may never again field their strongest teams in the test arena.

All of this presents an unlikely opportunity for Ireland over the next two weeks. It is somewhat ironic, given that Ireland has never beaten New Zealand, that this opportunity now presents itself at a time when Ireland are under interim management.

In many respects, Michael Bradley and Niall O’Donovan have a very difficult task at hand given the players know they are keeping the seat warm for Declan Kidney until August. That said everyone on board this trip must ensure these two tests don’t become a case of a serious opportunity missed.

Munster’s outstanding victory in Europe along with Leinster’s success in securing the Magners League and Eoin Reddan’s Premiership success with Wasps last Saturday, presents Ireland with a group of players high on confidence.

Traditionally New Zealand are slow out of the blocks at this time of year. Two years ago, Ireland came within a whisker of downing New Zealand colours for the first time in Hamilton. With many of the same faces still in the squad, that experience should not be lost on the players.

Even Michael Bradley can draw from personal experience from Ireland’s tour in 1992 when, despite being hammered in several provincial games, Ireland came within two points of defeating New Zealand in the opening test.

Despite the mass emigration from All Black ranks in recent months, Graham Henry’s squad rotation policy in the build up to the World Cup means that Ireland will still face a side with decent international experience and only one new cap.

You can be sure that over the coming weeks and months new faces will emerge in the New Zealand game that will become household names by the next World Cup. The greatest challenge for Henry at this stage is to replace the decision makers in his side having lost proven leaders in Oliver, Jack, Maugher and Kelleher.

There may be a sense of crisis surrounding New Zealand rugby at present, but I well recall the emergence of the ‘Baby Blacks’ in 1986 when New Zealand beat France by 18-9 against all the odds.

That was the year when the rebel Cavaliers side (New Zealand under another name) went on an unauthorised tour to South Africa. All the participants were banned for the following two tests necessitating the introduction of an entire new team including 11 new caps to face the French.

Several of those debutants including Sean Fitzpatrick, Leinster forwards coach Mike Brewer, Joe Stanley, Terry Wright, Frano Botica and Andy Earl became part of New Zealand’s only World Cup triumph the following year.

For Ireland, these two tests against New Zealand and Australia have far more relevance than some of the end of season jousts that have formed part of the international calendar in recent times.

World Cup ranking points are crucial between now and December if Ireland is to avoid another group of death in New Zealand in 2011.

A return of one test victory over the next two weeks would not only break the sequence of losing tours against the big three dating back to 1979 but would also enhance Ireland’s prospects of a favourable draw.

For the players, one suspects the satisfaction of beating the All Blacks for the first time in an Irish jersey should provide sufficient motivation.

How fitting it would be in the 21st meeting of the sides if Ireland should come of age.

They may never get a better chance.


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