Sunday, November 15, 2009

Grands Slam

In the sport of Rugby Union, there is a regular yearly competition between the strong countries of Europe. These days this includes Italy and is now the Six Nations Championship, but when I was a child it was the five nations: the five nations in question being England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and France. One of the peculiarities of this tournament is that winning the tournament is a less big deal than how you do it. Winning every game is a so called "Grand Slam", and this gets much more kudos than simply winning the tournament. The winners of the Six Nations also seems to win the Grand Slam about every second or third year.

As it happened, Ireland won the Grand Slam in the Six Nations Championship at the start of this year. This was a big deal for them: it was only the second time they had won it, and the first time in 61 years.

However, as it happens, achieving a Grand Slam in Rugby wasn't just a five nations thing. Back in the days when international travel was hard, the teams from the Rugby Union playing nations of the southern hemisphere would only tour the British Isles every few years. When they did so, they would play one test against each of Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales. Winning all four games was the same achievement that would be required of France to win the Grand Slam in the then Five Nations, and also became known as winning the Grand Slam, or at least it did in the southern hemisphere rugby nations.

Winning a Grand Slam this way was never easy, and prior to 1984, it was only ever done five times: by South Africa in 1912, 1931, 1951, and 1960, and by New Zealand in 1978. In 1984, it was achieved by Australia for the first time. I can remember this, and it was a huge occasion in Australian rugby. A lot of rugby fans in Australia would still describe it as the biggest moment the sport has ever had in Australia, and Australia have won the World Cup - twice - since then. This was the first time Australia had ever put a world beating rugby team on the field. Prior to that Rugby Union had always been a (very) poor relation to Rugby League in Australia and the Rugby Union team had almost always lost badly to New Zealand, South Africa, and the stronger British and French teams. Since then, Australia has been one of the leading powers in the game.

However, even before the 1984 tour was played, the various governing bodies had decided that it would be much easier for their schedules if touring sides were not playing all four home nations in the same season. It was decided that in this age of easier travel, the southern hemisphere sides would come twice as often and only play two of the four nations on each tour. This decision was unpopular with the boards in the Southern Hemisphere countries, because a tour in which a Grand Slam is a possibility is a bigger deal than one where it isn't. The boards in the British isles on the other hand either didn't realise this or didn't care.

However, the southern hemisphere boards discovered that they could negotiate with individual nations, and try to get additional tests added to these two test tours. I remember in 1996 Australia managed to get Wales to agree to add a game to a tour that already had Ireland and Scotland, and Australia tried very hard to get England to agree to a game too. When England refused to substitute a test match for a charity game at Twickenham between Australia and the Barbarians, I recall Australian officials getting very abusive, too. And it was a shame, because Australia had a pretty good side that year and won the three tests against Scotland, Ireland, and Wales quite convincingly. A final game at Twickenham for the Grand Slam would have been great.

Since then, Southern Hemisphere tours of Europe have become more common, and any regular structure is gone. Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand tour Europe most years, and fit in various combinations of tests with the four Home Nations, France, and Italy. They play all these teams fairly frequently, but there is still a lot of prestige attached to a Grand Slam tour of the British Isles for historical reasons, and winning a Grand Slam is a big deal, because it has been done so infrequently. South Africa managed to schedule Grand Slam tours in 1998 and 2004, but could not win the Grand Slam on either occasion. New Zealand scheduled Grand Slam tours in 2005 and 2008, and won the Grand Slam on both occasions, which probably made their inability to win World Cups even more annoying for them.

However, this year, Australia finally managed to schedule a Grand Slam series, for the first time since the famous 1984 tour. They are not seen has having a very strong side this year, having lost most of their southern hemisphere matches to New Zealand and South Africa, and were only given odds of 7/1 before the tour. Last weekend, they played England, and played well enough to win reasonably confortably , despite some problems in the line outs. They were ecstatic at the end of the game, mainly because the Grand Slam possibility made it a much bigger occasion that it would have been otherwise. Today against Ireland, the line outs were again a problem, but Australia none the less led for almost the entire match. Their defence was good, and they spent the last ten minutes defending a 20-13 lead. It looked like the Grand Slam was still on.

Except, Ireland got through in the last couple of minutes, and scored a converted try to draw the match 20-20. The Grand Slam is not happening this year. There is no disgrace in drawing with or even losing to Ireland at the moment - after all they won a Grand Slam themselves at the start of the year. However, if Australia beat Scotland and Wales, which they may not, they will really see this as a chance for glory that got away. There is a sense perhaps that a chance for a great occasion may have been lost. Australia should beat Scotland next weekend. A final game in front of a huge crowd in Cardiff against Wales for the Grand Slam could have been fun.

Oh well, though. If these things were easy, they would not be such a big deal when they do occur. Hopefully we will not have to wait for another 25 years before Australia get another chance to do this.

What is interesting, though, is that my Northern Hemisphere rugby friends largely missed why the southerners were taking this so seriously. This type of Grand Slam is not something thought of much by northern fans, possibly because it is something their own teams cannot win. but it's quite a big deal for us.

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