Why The Raeburn Shield?
International test rugby would be improved by the introduction of a new trophy, one which all serious rugby nations would have a realistic chance of winning. Practically, the Rugby World Cup is winnable only by the elite few. Other international trophies are only competed for by a limited set of nations. The answer is to introduce a Challenge Trophy to be put up by the holder, or defender, in every match it plays (in the same manner as a world boxing title, or New Zealand's Ranfurly Shield). The winner would either remain or become the holder. A draw would result in the Defender retaining the title. (Composite teams such as the British and Irish Lions and the Pacific Islanders would not be eligible to challenge).
The Rugby World Cup is the game's showpiece but it should not be regarded as the be-all and end-all of test rugby. Test matches between World Cups, especially those outside of the Six Nations and Tri-Nations, ought to be regarded as important matches where winning is the main aim, rather than as "friendlies;" providing an opportunity for development or rotation of players even at the cost of victory. Too often in the lead-up to World Cups, rugby supporters are fobbed off with a match involving what amounts to one or two national "B" teams masquerading as full international test sides. It now seems that outside of the World Cup, one virtually never sees a full-strength Northern Hemisphere team play a test against a full-strength Southern team. This is not good for the game.
Another issue in modern rugby is the gulf between the top nations and the rest. There has been progress in this area, with regional championships like the European Nations Cup, Nations Cup and Pacific Nations Cup paying some dividends in the relative success of the minor nations in the 2007 World Cup.There is, however, little realistic prospect in the foreseeable future of, say, a Pacific nation winning the World Cup; the only trophy in which all nations may compete. The prospect of a serious trophy available for a one-off match would increase interest from fans and media in matches where an upset would not just be embarrassing,(although tolerable in the name of "development?") but would result in the loss of an important international trophy.
An additional prize open to all nations would assist in remedying the above problems by giving the unions, players, fans and media a reason to take non-World Cup matches more seriously. A Challenge Trophy of the type proposed would fit the bill as follows:
• All nations could compete.
• It would be independent of the World Cup and the existing regional championships.
• As a one-off upset would be sufficient to lift the trophy, it would be realistically winnable by non-top tier nations even when playing against elite nations in a series. (This would not be the case in a round robin or knockout type competition where there is little chance of a minor nation winning.)
• It would not require any additional tests to be scheduled. Given the current overcrowding of the rugby calendar, any additional, new tournament would either be a non-starter or only attract under-strength teams from major nations. The suggested trophy can be contested for during current competitions and tours, in the same way as Tri Nations matches double as Bledisloe Cup matches, or 6 Nations matches as Calcutta Cup games.
* The trophy would be likely to change hands several times in a season, making it relevant far more often than the World Cup, and meaning virtually any future match has the potential to be a Trophy Match.
* It would take only one upset result for a minor rugby nation to win the Trophy, at which point other minor nations may well be able to successfully challenge.
* The nature of the competition and the ability to recognise hypothetical past winners gives this Trophy an existing history and records.
A list of hypothetical holders has been drawn up as if this trophy has been put at stake since the very first test match between England and Scotland in 1871, played at Raeburn Place; hence the suggested name "Raeburn Shield" and at every subsequent relevant match. No less than eleven nations would have managed to hold this Trophy, including Argentina, Romania and Samoa. In the professional era, the title has changed hands on average nearly four times a year. In 2007 there were no less than ten successful challenges. Since 1996, all the Tri Nations teams have held the title, as have each of the Home Nations, France and Samoa. Many more teams have had the opportunity to challenge.
Almost invariably the Trophy would be at stake throughout the play-off stages of a World Cup and would be held by the World Cup winner, at least until its next match. This provides yet another benefit in that a team that holds the World Cup but performs poorly (such as England between 2003 and 2007, or South Africa in 2008) could not claim rights to the only trophy open to all national teams.
This competition would provide concrete recognition to truly great teams (such as the All Blacks of 1987 to 1990 who, hypothetically, would have held the Trophy through a record 18 test matches) and would reward one off upsets (such as Samoa in 1999).
In practical terms, this would be a simple competition to instigate. There would be no need for extra matches to be scheduled, or other such organisation all that would be needed is the provision of a suitable trophy,plus a little promotion and marketing to the public and national unions.
A rugby public that is becoming jaded with the four-year World Cup cycle and repetitive Six Nations and Rugby Championship would surely enthusiastically embrace such a trophy.