At the start of the UK’s lock-down back in March I had written a question to myself in my diary; what would life be like in 4 months’ time? This blog is not going to answer that particular question but it gave me the idea of asking the same question albeit through a longer lens; what will rugby look like in 12 months’ time, given that the sport will celebrate two momentous occasions?
The first is the Olympic Games opening ceremony that will take place on this very day in one year’s time, 23rd July 2021. Following this spectacle the playing of the rugby sevens will commence. In a reverse from the previous edition in Rio, the men’s rugby sevens competition will take place first; running over three days from 26-28 July, with the women’s competition following on 29-31 July, which sees the gold medal match falling on ‘Super Saturday’ – traditionally a highlight of the Games.
The ‘7s’ competition will take place in the Tokyo stadium and it will be one of the hottest tickets around but equally for rugby fans of the ‘XV’s game, in exactly one year’s time will be the first test match between the reigning Rugby World Cup Champions, South Africa against the British & Irish Lions.
The opening series test match will be played on Saturday 24th July 2021 in the equally iconic FNB Stadium, also known as Soccer City, located in Nasrec, bordering the Soweto area of Johannesburg.
Two huge events for World Rugby held at two iconic stadiums and with a global television audience that will run into many millions I can feel the excitement building even now!
As a former Lion, the 4 year cycle just gets bigger and bigger. Next year’s tour could see upwards of 50K plus supporters and what I love about the Lions is that the supporters appear have more fun than the Lions players!
Whilst many supporters will be discussing what sights to visit; what safaris they should go on and what vineyards that they should visit, the players perspective is very much focused on the now. The dilemma for players that are about to embark upon a 12 month season is how can they sustain their game and put themselves in the frame for selection.
The major shop window for players to showcase their talents for selection will be the extended international window and this week the World Rugby Executive Committee recommended a revised temporary 2020 international calendar with the express objective of optimising recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic for the betterment of the global game at all levels.
Seeking to reconcile the interests of the international game, the professional club game and player welfare, temporary windows have been determined following extensive and productive consultation between World Rugby, international competitions, national unions, their professional club competitions and International Rugby Players.
Recognising the importance of a balanced and shared compromise among all stakeholders, a temporary international window between 24 October and 5 December has been recommended for this coming season. In the north, this window will accommodate the postponed men's and women's Six Nations matches at the end of October, a rest weekend on 7 November and a programme of international matches involving the Six Nations and invited teams hosted in Europe from 14 November through to 5 December.
And all of this comes before next season’s European competition, the 6 Nations and domestic leagues so for all the players in the frame for selection holding form is going to be a real challenge. In the build up to my Lions tours in 1989 and 1993, the shop window for selection was the 5 Nations. Club rugby in Scotland was not of a high enough standard to merit a visit from the coach or a member of the then selection committee although reports were regularly sent back to the management team following inter-district and other representative fixtures.
It helped my cause that Ian McGeechan was my Scotland coach at the same time as he coached the Lions but ‘Geech’ would always remind us that we would have to play better than our rivals during the 5 Nations championship. Looking back the honour of playing for the Lions grows more and more every year and a few years ago every Lion was presented with a special ‘Lions cap’ in recognition for having played for this very special team. There have only ever been 835 players who have played for the Lions and my Lion number is 617.
The players that tour South Africa next year will continue that great tradition and whilst many of the party will have already played for the Lions there will be handful of new faces that will wear that famous jersey for the first time. Their names and numbers will be recorded on the famous roster but I am sure there will also be heartache as some will miss out on selection whilst others will succumb to injury during the coming season and inevitably whilst on tour.
I can speak from experience as my 1993 tour to New Zealand was cruelly ended a week before the opening test match when I shattered my jaw and cheekbone in a mistimed tackle on Josh Kronfeld in the Lions match against Otago. Having knocked myself out, I remember getting up from the deck and wondering why I could not close my mouth whilst the rest of my face had caved in. Funnily enough the New Zealand doctor who saw me back in the changing room thought I could return to the pitch!
I knew that my tour was over and I was whisked away to hospital where the surgeon and his medical team spent four and half hours in theatre putting back my face! In life you learn from those disappointments and that is why I love winning!
In 1989 I was part of the Lions tour that came back from losing the opening test match to winning a series and to this day it is right up there as one of the best moments of my rugby career. Of course that was a way back in the amateur era but for those 8 weeks we became professional players.
Next year’s tour will be 5 weeks long. This means that it will be very intense and may not provide every player with the fairest chance of competing for a test spot but what makes a successful Lions tour is one that pulls the whole squad together through winning rugby whilst putting aside individual disappointment at not being selected for the test team. I find it sad that some former players did not enjoy their Lions experience but I for one embraced the Lions culture and touring experience to the full.
Over the last 10 years or so I have had the privilege of commentating and attending a number of World Rugby HSBC Sevens Word Series events. I have covered World Cups, Commonwealth Games and covered both the men’s and women’s series. Unfortunately I was not involved in the coverage of 7s in Rio and it’s very unlikely that I will be in Tokyo next year as it clashes with the Lions series.
The Olympic sevens is a glittering show of athleticism and the pace, power and supreme fitness of these magnificent athletes will shine the spotlight on the abbreviated game. Fiji are the current Olympic holders of the men’s game whilst Australia hold the women’s title. However, this season’s HSBC 7s series was dominated by both New Zealand teams and it will be fascinating to see if they can hold that form going into Tokyo.
It’s likely that this coming 7s season will be cut short just as this season was but like the Lions and South African players the 24 men’s and women’s teams that make it Tokyo will be at their peak of excellence.
Both the Lions series and the Olympic 7s competition will create history.
Let the countdown begin!