Duane Heath

Tours v Tri-Nations trudge

2004-07-30 07:53

Cape Town - On the morning of South Africa's 13-7 loss to England in London in 1998, I headed off to Twickenham to visit the stadium's famous rugby museum. As any rugby fan will tell you, it's well worth the entrance fee.

I spent the nervous hours before the big kick-off wandering around the spacious rooms dedicated to the history of rugby. I listened to commentary of the great matches, and watched footage from famous Tests. And at the exit, there was the strategically located souvenir shop where I proceeded to empty my wallet.

Yesterday I visited the South African rugby museum at Newlands in Cape Town. I didn't have to pay to go in because there was no one there - and I was the only visitor.

It was an odd experience. If the state of the museum reflects the current generation's respect for the history it is trying (not very hard) to preserve, then anyone trickling in to walk round the tiny afterthought that is South Africa's official rugby museum would come to the conclusion that nobody cares much for the halcyon days that built the tradition of Springbok rugby.

Framed black-and-white photos - slices of history frozen on film - lay boxed and bubble-wrapped for dust mites to feed on. Charts are hopelessly out of date (Percy Montgomery is nowhere on the museum's list of top points-scorers), television exhibits don't work, and a general sense of neglect prevails.

But what caught my eye more than anything else was the trophies on display. No, not the 1995 World Cup. Not even a replica. Ditto for the Currie Cup. Tri-Nations trophy? Nowhere to be seen.

Important trophies

If I were a tourist who knew nothing about rugby, and I'd come to the SA rugby museum, I would make the quite honest mistake of assuming that the most important trophies the Springboks play for (and win!) are the Winfield trophy, the Telecom trophy, and something called the Philips Tri-Nations Cup.

Hands up anyone who can tell me when the Boks won these trophies and who they were playing against when they did so? Does anyone care? I know I don't, but just for the record: South African won the Winfield trophy in 1996 and 1997 for beating Australia in South Africa in the Tri-Nations. Today it sits collecting dust and is in serious need of a polish.

The Telecom trophy, elaborate piece of sad-looking silverware that it is, takes centre stage under an exhibit of famous Springbok jerseys, including Francois Pienaar's famous World Cup final No 6 strip. But the cup in question was awarded for nothing more than beating Italy 40-21 in 1995, the explanation written next to the oversized piece of metal tells us.

And the so-called "Philips Tri-Nations Cup" - awarded only once, according to the smudged engraving - was what Gary Teichmann held aloft on July 25, 1998 after the Boks beat the All Blacks in Wellington.

Now, compared to the first two trophies I mentioned, at least the Tri-Nations Cup is something to be proud of - but you wouldn't think so given the state it and the others are in.

But this is not the fault of the cleaner, who seems to have forgotten where the Silvo is kept. Or the enthusiastic and proud curator whose hands are probably tied by budgetary constraints.

The plain truth is that these token trophies are simply a sign of the times. All bright and shiny when they're held aloft after a victory frequently not justifying the awarding of silverware, they soon become nothing more than rusting relics of the professional age.

Tacky trinkets

Trophies are nothing more than tacky trinkets that have flooded the market that is the instant, one-off Test match world of rugby.

Look, trophies such as the World Cup, Bledisloe Cup, etc. are coveted because there is history there and they mean something. But how many times over the past few years have we seen captains raise aloft meaningless pieces of metal and look almost embarrassed when doing so?

The trophy age, of course, is here to stay. But modern greats such as Jason Little and Ian Jones are just two former players who are starting to make their voices heard with regard to the reintroduction of full-scale tours to rugby.

It's common this time of year, when the Tri-Nations circus flies into town, for so-called rugby traditionalists to recall the halcyon days of three-month tours. Modern administrators and their band of merry marketing men dismiss them as men living in the past.

But they do so at their - and rugby's - peril.

On the eve of yet another Tri-Nations trudge between the Springboks and the Wallabies (can anyone remember the scores between these two countries in their last five Tests?), it was interesting to read midfield legend Little's take on tours, as opposed to one-off internationals that have become the rugby equivalent of cricketing ODIs - too numerous to have any value beyond being money-spinners.

Teams fly in, fly out

"For me, I liked the longer tours where you played sides midweek and got to know the country and the people," Little told Welsh legend Gareth Edwards in his book Tackling Rugby. "Now, teams fly in for a one-off Test and fly out. You see nothing, see no one. What's saddest of all is I can't see how they can physically structure the longer tour into a season any more, considering all the domestic commitments everyone has."

Little's All Black counterpart Ian Jones, one of the second-row greats of the modern era, agrees: "You can only really judge yourself superior to your opponents if you play them in a three-match Test series. New Zealand and Australia have been doing it for decades down under in the Bledisloe Cup and it gives everyone a proper chance to judge each side correctly. You learn little in a one-off Test match in which a side flies in and then flies out."

Edwards, arguably the greatest player of all time and one of the sport's most respected voices, had the following to say: "One-off internationals are arranged to satisfy the great god that is television but to those people who have created this situation I say simply, 'You have created a monster you cannot stop or control'.

"I am sad to say that I, too, think the proper length international tours are gone, dead and buried. The pity is that, far too often, these radical changes in direction for the game as a whole have been made for one reason alone: finance. There is, I believe, a danger of us all drowning in international rugby."

What is certain, beyond the reality that tours are a thing of the past, is that, as modern rugby evolves, new competitions and their accompanying trophies will emerge. And 10 or 20 years from now, rusting at a museum near you, will be the Super 12 trophy, the Tri-Nations trophy, the Currie Cup - perhaps even the new Freedom Cup that the Springboks and All Blacks will play for the first time on August 14.

Tours may not solve all the ills of modern rugby. But they are events that are remembered. They build history. They make legends.

One-off Tests create nothing more than transient heroes and piles of cash - but at what cost to the sport?

Tours or Tri-Nations? Tell Duane what you think.

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