Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, made it clear who was at fault for the unsuccessful talks with New Zealand, with plans for an impromptu match this autumn shelved after the All Blacks elected to play the Barbarians instead of England.
“They felt they wanted to play the Barbarians rather than have a tough tier one fixture,” Ritchie said on Friday. “It's as a simple as that.”
The simple matter is that England and New Zealand will have played each other once in five years by the time the 2019 Rugby World Cup begins, with their scheduled autumn international next year the only time that the current top two in the world will have met since 2014.
For rugby fans, that isn’t good enough, and it’s something that Ritchie buys into as well. “I simply felt that there was an opportunity to get that game that frankly every supporter in the country wants to see, every rugby fan wants to see, and beforehand was it a shame that we weren’t playing New Zealand before 2018? There was a possibility and it was worth exploring, end of.”
The RFU confirmed last week that they were holding talks with the New Zealand Rugby Union, and in particular the NZRU chief executive Steve Tew, about hosting a match on 4 November this year – ahead of England’s finalised fixtures against Argentina, Samoa and Australia. That would have seen the bulk of the England squad coming off a British and Irish Lions tour against the All Blacks, with the rest travelling to Argentina for this summer’s two-Test series against the Pumas.
It had led the England head coach, Eddie Jones, to ponder resting a number of players for the autumn internationals, only for the RFU to enter talks with the All Blacks about an additional match. But even though Ritchie revealed that Jones was fully behind the idea of testing his team against the reigning world champions, it raised questions over player welfare and squeezing in another fixture for the squad to cope with.
“That’s absolutely right and he [Jones] can do that whether there were three or four games,” Ritchie said of the plan to give his players a break if they were showing signs of tiredness in the autumn.
“How he rests them, how we deal with it, how we work that out, again I think it’s an important relationship between us and PRL and the clubs. If you look up during the course of this season, if you go back to play because they need a game, when they’re rested, there is plenty of flexibility and discretion within our arrangement to see whether or not somebody can get a rest, and it’s up to Eddie fundamentally in collaboration with those directors of rugby as to agree what they want to agree.
“I don’t see that one game post-Lions, bearing in mind the possible significance of it, was a detriment to that because I think the overwhelming thing was it was very well worth trying to see if that game could happen. It hasn’t, but that’s fine. I think I would be unfair to Eddie and to fans if I hadn’t at least explored the possibility.”
After confirming that New Zealand’s commitments meant that the match could not take place after the other autumn internationals in the first week of December, the RFU were not able to persuade them into playing England on the opening weekend of the autumn internationals, and instead signed off the match between the All Blacks and the Barbarians at Twickenham on the same day.
But how did Jones take the news? “He was disappointed obviously. Eddie is fairly clear and relatively quick as to whether or not he thinks something is a good or bad idea. We had several conversations about it. He was very happy to play it, wanted to play it. It’s up to New Zealand and I completely understand their conclusion.”
Unfortunately the conclusion is that the two bests in world rugby today will not play each other for another 20 months, having already seen more than two years come and go since their last thrilling encounter ended in a narrow 24-21 victory for the Southern Hemisphere sides. With all things looking rosy for England right now – Six Nations champions at men’s, women’s and Under-20s level – it’s the only blotch on their CV under Jones that they haven’t even played the All Blacks, let alone measured where they are against them.