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Why it's absolutely important that the Lions tour of South Africa goes ahead - even for New Zealand

By Hamish Bidwell
Kieran Read and Sam Warburton. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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As regrets about that third helping of Christmas pudding abate and the New Year’s Eve hangovers subside, it’s hard not to cast your eye towards rugby.

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With the Black Caps not playing any opponents of substance, no international tennis tournaments in New Zealand this year and the America’s Cup something of an acquired taste, a rugby wishlist quickly comes to mind.

We got through 2020 reasonably unscathed, but the game can’t absorb another year of that nature. We need meaningful competitions and to see all of the world’s elite teams and players on deck.

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A montage of our craziest year in memory.

Sadly, that last bit might not materialise and this wishlist inevitably has to start with South Africa.

We need to see the Springboks play: Odds on South Africa hosting the British and Irish Lions lengthen by the day.

That tour should be the highlight of the rugby year, but COVID-19 dictates that it’s unlikely to take place.

It’s not just about the rugby. It’s the revenue that matters too. The full stadiums, the travelling fans. Lions rugby is nothing without those.

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Bubbles – as we’ve seen with the aborted England cricket tour to South Africa – can be penetrated and a postponement or relocation of the Lions’ series won’t work.

South Africa needs to host the tour as scheduled or not at all and, sadly, not at all is looking the most likely scenario.

For the Springboks to play any rugby this year, their players will seemingly need to be based offshore and that won’t be a hugely-palatable prospect. More and more you fear another year without the Rugby World Cup champions actually taking the park.

We need a better calendar: Yes, we know these are unusual times and we appreciate that global seasons or dual-hemisphere franchise or test competitions are out of the question due to the world’s health crisis.

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But, boy, New Zealand’s rugby year could be a bit of a bore.

Few fans, if any, are in a hurry to see our Super Rugby franchises play Australia’s, while the Mitre 10 Cup will die of neglect soon.

We’ve got July tests against Italy and Fiji to ‘look forward’ to, before an uncertain Rugby Championship. The way things stand, it could just be Australia and Argentina on the itinerary again. Yippee.

Away tests in Ireland and, particularly, France would round the year out well (if they’re able to go ahead) but things still have a rather humdrum look about them.

That’s part of the appeal of the Lions. New Zealand doesn’t have a horse in their race with South Africa, but we’ll still be captivated by that series and the chance to see something a bit different. Not to mention a bit of demonstrable care.

Rugby needs games that matter to the combatants, rather than just more meaningless matches to fulfill the broadcast agreement.

It might be years off at this rate, but once the world is well and borders can be crossed safely and fans can fill stadiums we really do need to reimagine rugby as a global – rather than regional – game.

We need to address provincial rugby: New Zealand Rugby are having a think about what to do with the Mitre 10 Cup. They’ve been at it a while, actually.

I can save them a bit of time here.

Don’t worry about the format. It matters little whether there are two divisions. Daytime, night-time, the kickoffs are irrelevant too.

The fact is, if none of this country’s better players are going to appear in the competition, fewer and fewer people are going to watch it.

If we flag Super Rugby and we ditch the Australians and the Argentines and South Africans and distribute all of our All Blacks among the provinces then maybe the Mitre 10 Cup has a chance to survive.

Unfortunately, it’s global competitions that keep NZR afloat and, on that basis, they’re at the point where the Mitre 10 Cup has become an extravagance.

Sure it’s nice to have and it comes with a heap of tradition, but it also has no future in its current guise.

We need the All Blacks to lose a bit: Well, at least if we want to see any change.

But if you’re happy with who’s in charge of the team and how they went in 2020, then you’ll be counting down the days till head coach Ian Foster has his contract extended.

I can hardly wait.

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Why it's absolutely important that the Lions tour of South Africa goes ahead - even for New Zealand

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