Why an All Blacks-Springboks tour can work amid rugby's rocky waters

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Between the Club World Cup and Test rugby's Nations Championship concept you could be forgiven for losing track of the varied and vexed pushes to commercialise global audiences.

Rugby is big business and, increasingly, the sport requires big sums to keep vulnerable professional clubs and national unions afloat.

Hence the need to dress up domestic and international tournaments in their best Sunday frocks and hope the makeover squeezes an emperor's size fee from competing broadcasters in the coming years.

Set against that money-driven backdrop, alongside the desire to improve rugby as an entertainment product by speeding up the game and minimising dead time, is New Zealand and South Africa's back-to-the-future tours model.

In a rugby world attempting to reimagine itself in order to survive, the once treasured tour concept potentially coming full circle sits in stark contrast to the quest for shiny new ideas.

Just as shoes, clothes and music trends often rebirth, the prospect of modern-day tours is a timely reminder that tradition and seemingly outdated themes cannot be cast aside.

Vintage is in vogue, after all. Walk the streets and oversized, throwback Chicago Bulls, Miami Dolphins, North Sydney Bears t-shirts are hugely popular among the next-gen audiences rugby must capture to retain its threatened status.

Super Rugby finally got with the programme this year by introducing slick heritage strips. Thanks to a change in apparel brand - from Adidas to Classic - New Zealand teams donned widely popular heritage jerseys from their team's heyday.

In this regard, old school is new school. History is hip. The same goes for reviving All Blacks-Springboks tours.

Outside World Cups rugby's most popular brand or event comes in the form of British & Irish Lions tours. The operative word being the final one.

Lions tours have evolved over time, sure, but their essence is true to tradition.

The Lions sustained appeal, both in an on-field attraction and commercial success, centres on their connection to history - and the lure of mid-week matches that allows supporters to engage over a prolonged period.

If the Lions underwent a dramatic modernisation that challenged the fabric of the team, it's debatable whether scores of travelling fans would flock to New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, as they do every four years.

The last genuine All Blacks and Springboks tour was held 28 years ago, in 1996, when Sean Fitzpatrick led New Zealand to three Test victories to capture their first series success in the Republic.

Now, though, plans are in the works to enhance rugby's greatest rivalry.

"When you think about not only the fantastic rivalry between the All Blacks and Springboks but the wider connection around midweek games and the ability to get right around the country, that's something that brings the country, here and in South Africa, alive. A lot of thought goes into that," New Zealand Rugby boss Mark Robinson said earlier this year.

"One-off matches are great but if you can bring an extended period of real excitement, right across the country, they're moments rugby wants to be involved in. We talk a lot about how we can inspire and unify the country, well, I don't think you get better moments than those sorts of opportunities to do that."

New Zealand and South Africa's rugby relationship was severely strained when the former seized control of Super Rugby during COVID shutdowns.

For a variety of reasons, location and time zones among them, South Africa's club teams were definitively drifting north but their messy Super Rugby exit forced the issue and left New Zealand in repair mode.

Four years on relations are largely mended, with the two proud nations exploring ways to maintain contact wherever possible. That includes holding age-grade tours to expose future All Blacks and Springboks to their distinctly different styles. And in the Test scene, there is a strong shared desire to bring back tours, with the first tentatively planned for 2026 in South Africa.

The blueprint is to stage the reciprocal tours, which would consist of three Tests and midweek matches, once every four years.

As with the Lions, scarcity should ensure interest is maintained.

South Africa's first professional era tour of New Zealand could take place in 2030, one year after the next men's British & Irish Lions venture to New Zealand, and involve the Springboks playing midweek games against Super Rugby teams.

Like the Nations Championship concept, which ring fences the top 12 nations competing for global supremacy every two years but largely freezes out tier two nations, elements of elitism surround the All Blacks and Springboks reviving tours, as it would compromise the Rugby Championship.

In proposed tour years, alternative fixtures for the Wallabies and Pumas - possibly against the likes of Japan and Fiji - would be needed to supplement a truncated Rugby Championship.

Whether that significant hurdle can be overcome remains to be seen.

While tours would not work for every rugby nation, the All Blacks and Springboks would deliver guaranteed sell outs, broadcast bonanzas and a treasured taste of Test rugby spread across the respective countries.

Amid an increasingly sugar hit rugby climate, the prospect of reviving genuine tours is a nod to the past and recognition that, in this instance, the once well-trodden path is as relevant and popular as ever.