International rugby was first played in Edinburgh some 150 years ago, so it is perhaps apt that the Scottish capital is the venue for the start of its full reawakening.
After an 18-month period where only a small number of teams outside of Europe have been able to compete because of the COVID-19 pandemic, fans can look forward to a feast of rugby in July.
A month of mouth-watering fixtures that recognise hosting certainty, travel and quarantining, and the very real prospect of fans in stadiums will see some old acquaintances and new rivalries formed.
Setting things up nicely is Japan’s one-off test against the British and Irish Lions at Murrayfield on 26 June – a first in world rugby.
It also signals Japan’s return to the international arena for the first time since they successfully hosted Rugby World Cup 2019 and won an army of new fans at home and further afield with their adventurous approach to rugby.
Brave Blossoms head coach Jamie Joseph is, for one, grateful for the opportunity to take to the field again, with a match against Ireland to also look forward to in Dublin a week later.
“We have not played for 18 months and need to get back on the field,” he said.
“Watching the Top League, it is clear that the keenness and the motivation of players has not dimmed and that competition has improved significantly with a number of high-quality coaches and players.
“The match against the Lions is a one-off which means there is not the normal pressure of a test series. It will be the first time they have come together so I’d imagine there will be a bit of rust.
“Games like this can be a bit messy, but the prospect of playing such a fixture and going to Scotland is exciting.
“I am looking forward to working with the squad again, having a look at the new guys and working on what we need to improve on.”
• Twenty-five of the top 30 ranked unions to play tests in the July window 📆— World Rugby (@WorldRugby) May 10, 2021
• World champions @Springboks and hosts @JRFURugby play first tests since @rugbyworldcup 2019 🏆
• The UK and Ireland set to host a number of nations, while New Zealand becomes Pacific hub 🌍
Springboks grateful for “much-needed” opportunity
Like Japan, South Africa have not played a test since lifting the Webb Ellis Cup for a third time in Yokohama on 2 November, 2019.
However, the Springboks will get to show exactly what turned them into the world’s number one ranked team, and begin Jacques Nienaber’s reign in charge, when they make their long-awaited return to international rugby with back-to-back tests against Georgia, on the eve of the Lions series.
Rassie Erasmus, Springbok director of rugby, welcomed the World Rugby July test schedule and said the series against Georgia offered the Springboks a very good opportunity to prepare for the much-anticipated Lions series.
“Nothing beats a full-blooded international to test your skill set, readiness and ability under pressure, and we are delighted to have this opportunity before the Lions series.
“Jacques (Nienaber), his coaching staff and management have been working around the clock to get the team as well prepared as possible, and the Georgia series is a much-needed opportunity after such a long and unforeseen interruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Following on from their historic tour to the Pacific Islands in 2016, it will be the first time the Lelos have toured South Africa.
However, the two countries have worked collaboratively in the realms of player development for the last few years, a point acknowledged by Georgian Rugby Union vice-president Lasha Khurtsidze. It is also reflective of the spirit of togetherness that has enabled such fixtures to be organised in these challenging times.
“Playing against them (the Springboks) is a great honour for us,” said Khurtsidze.
“We have only played the Springboks once before, in our first Rugby World Cup appearance in 2003. A lot of time has passed since then, they are the current world champions and we have developed as well.”
Following the series in South Africa, Georgia will host Scotland and Lelos head coach Lasha Maisashvili said he considered three consecutive tests against leading nations to be a great development opportunity for his team.
Georgia benefitted from playing England, Wales, Ireland and Fiji on consecutive weekends in last year’s Autumn Nations Cup, improving game-by-game, and will be looking to kick on again.
“The fact that the world champions intend to play two test matches against us is a tribute to Georgia rugby and a serious challenge,” he said.
“We will host Scotland after the series in South Africa, and so I think this is another amazing opportunity to help us in our development.”
With every challenge there is an opportunity, and the July schedule of international matches is a perfect illustration of this.
North America’s leading nations, the USA and Canada, were due to welcome touring teams to their shores, but because of the impracticalities brought about by COVID restrictions, hosting has been reversed.
This means that the USA will now play England at Twickenham for the first time since Rugby World Cup 1999, while it is that long ago that Canada faced Wales in Cardiff, the game was right at the very beginning of Lions fly-half Dan Biggar’s 92-cap international career, in 2008. Former Wales captains, Kingsley Jones and Rob Howley, are now coaching Canada.
“World Rugby have delivered”
For the Home Nations, the presence of some of their leading players in the Lions squad gives coaches the opportunity to blood new players, as was the case with Biggar 13 years ago.
Following on from the match against Canada on 3 July, Wales will play Argentina on the next two Saturdays.
“We are looking forward to this summer, the opportunity it presents, and we are delighted to have three tests confirmed,” said Wales head coach Wayne Pivac.
“It is disappointing not to have the opportunity to tour Argentina, especially on the back of our 2020 tour to New Zealand being cancelled, but in the current climate it is completely understandable.
“What is important is we have games and as we have said all along, this summer is a huge opportunity for us. We are delighted and proud to have 10 players selected for the British and Irish Lions, it is a reward for all their hard work and we wish them all the best this summer.
“With those players away, we always earmarked this summer as an important development opportunity for us.”
Welsh Rugby Union CEO Steve Phillips added: “It is a huge credit to World Rugby that a full schedule of summer international rugby has been achieved against the backdrop of the global pandemic.
“Whilst it is obviously disappointing not to tour, we are delighted in Wales to be hosting Canada and to be able to honour the 2017 San Francisco agreement by hosting the Pumas for back-to-back matches, which will be hugely important to our international player development.
“Wayne has been adamant that his squad needs matches this summer and World Rugby have certainly delivered on that front.”
World Rugby Chief Executive Alan Gilpin is delighted that such a competitive list of fixtures was possible despite all the obvious constraints.
“What’s been really important and really pleasing is the level of collaboration around the world to make this happen. It’s been definitely no mean feat to get these games scheduled,” he said.
“There are still lots of challenges; getting them scheduled is one thing but obviously now we’ve got to support a lot of those teams, particularly the emerging nations, with their travel arrangements, their quarantine arrangements …
“There is lots more work to do but I think, hopefully, what rugby fans will see is a really great set of fixtures in July, working around what we hope will be a really fantastic and historic British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa.
“This is about giving the players the best opportunity to be at their best at the biggest moments. As a package, we are really delighted by it.”