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International Rugby Test Series: The Most Unforgiving Environment

From Last Word on Rugby, James Barker

As the British and Irish Lions are finding out, an international Rugby Test series is the most unforgiving environment. One nil down in a three match series, they simply have to win in Wellington. But what makes Test series so special, and why are they so intense?

Incomparable to Other Sports

Cricket has the most comparable international schedule, with the top tier nations rotating around the globe in Test series. However with three different formats of the game the teams can be playing each other multiple times a week. This arguably dilutes the rivalry and occasion of the clash. The most celebrated Test series, The Ashes, consists of five matches so there is some margin for defeat. Also cricket can often end in a draw due to weather so five matches are often needed to ensure a series result.

Over in the Football world there is no equivalent. Countries only compete globally every four years in the World Cup or in non-competitive friendlies. You could argue that Test series are just glorified friendlies but that would be grossly unfair. International Football consists of one-off matches and the only tour matches are at major competitions. Therefore teams’ reputations are mainly built on their ability to beat their neighbours or on the basis of one-off performances once or twice a decade. In Rugby, you have to be able to compete with the best at least once a year.

Win or Lose: No Middle Ground  

99% of the time, a Rugby match produces a winner or a loser. Therefore a three match series will almost certainly end 3-0 or 2-1. It makes the first Test so important. This allows the media and the marketing teams to build up the hype for the start of the series. We have seen this over the past few months in New Zealand, who only play the Lions every 12 years. The sheer amount of red shirts in Eden Park last Saturday is testament to the spectacle a Test series can be.

In a World Cup, defeat in the first match does not mean the end of the road as there are four pool matches. What’s more the presence of Tier 2 and 3 sides mean this stage of the tournament is not intense for the top countries.

The Tour Experience

While a World Cup is a fantastic festival that brings supporters together from around the world, the head-to-head tour still holds an individual atmosphere. The International schedule normally pits Northern Hemisphere against Southern Hemisphere, where rivalries like Australia vs England attract large numbers of travelling support.  Therefore for the home team, they have to up their game to meet the challenge. In comparison the travelling side is motivated by wanting to reward the fans present and cause an upset.

Even when there are ‘dead rubber’ matches the pride factor provides enough motivation for an entertaining and competitive spectacle. For example on England’s tour of Australia last year, the third Test finished 44-40 to England.  The chance to whitewash their rivals was golden, and Australia certainly didn’t let that happen without an almighty fight.

Looking at the current Lions series, they would be extremely disappointed with a whitewash defeat that their first Test performance wouldn’t merit. If defeated on Saturday you can bet they will still go all out to win the final Test, as will New Zealand.


As World Rugby looks to grow the game further, it is clear that international rugby Test series are going nowhere. How the rugby calendar will expand in light of player welfare concerns is another matter, but Test series certainly have their place in the sport for many years to come.

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