As Ireland prepare to begin a five-game, three-Test odyssey across the world’s most rugby-mad nation, the trip has already been described as a tour like no other.
Whether or not this is true gazing back, it feels increasingly inevitable that, moving forward, it will certainly be the last of its kind with the looming presence of a revised Nations Cup format still on the horizon.
Touring has been an integral part of the sport’s fabric for well over a century, the idea of dedicated amateurs setting sail and crossing hemispheres all for the sake of the oval ball cherished among all who value the game’s history.
For all that has changed, and few sports in their modern incarnation are as unrecognisable when compared to their forefathers as rugby, touring remains a common thread, still a rite of passage for aspiring internationals now as it was then.
With Covid-19 ensuring that Ireland haven’t undertaken such a trip since beating Australia two games to one back in 2018, almost half of Andy Farrell’s travelling party in New Zealand will be experiencing a traditional tour for a first time.
While autumns and Six Nations, with their home comforts and their breaks, have come and gone in the interim, this is a different beast and how these players handle the pressure in perhaps the most stressful of all visited destinations will be valuable information for the head coach to glean.
With Ireland hoping to build upon an autumn clean sweep and a Six Nations when their only defeat came away to France at a time when captain Johnny Sexton was an injury-enforced absentee, the wealth of data that can be collected here over such a relatively short period of time will be no doubt be leaned upon heavily in the months to come as we build towards France 2023.
While we may not end the month with a definitive answer to the question posed by problem positions like reserve ten and back-up tight-head, it is safe to assume we’ll know plenty more than we do today.
Coupled with an All Blacks side still reeling from a pair of November losses, who in truth still feel like they have many more selection issues to resolve than their visitors, and who just so happened to add Ireland’s most successful coach, Joe Schmidt, to their ranks on Monday and the back-and-forth over the course of the three weeks seems sure to be fascinating.
And if the three time World Cup winners hosting the side who have beaten them in three of the five past meetings looks to be the pick of the summer slate, then there will be plenty of intrigue elsewhere too.
A seemingly befuddled England heading for Australian hosts who themselves have plotted something of a circuitous course in recent years will tell us much about the direction of travel of those two teams.
Throw in a seemingly beleaguered Wales coming off a horror season domestically for their regions facing up to the challenge of three games against a still buoyant World Champion Springboks and the enduring enigma that is Gregor Townsend’s Scotland heading to South America to meet Michael Cheika’s Argentina and there looks to be the potential for 12 fascinating games in store with the best-of-three format ensuring definitive winners and losers too.
So why do away with their ilk in the future?
Again it comes back to the precarious line between attracting new fans and continuing to appeal to the already converted.
For while any rugby enthusiast is already relishing what is in store over the next three Saturdays, those who have never taken to the code will snidely say that what are by the definition of other sports “just friendlies” can only ever mean so much.
Modernisation and an open mind is required by any sport looking to grow their base in what is an ever-evolving landscape in terms of how we consume entertainment. This certainly applies to a game that was still amateur as recently as three decades ago and didn’t even stage its first World Cup until 1987.
But assuming that the answer to the questions posed by the pace of change is to chip away at the more unique traditions of the game feels a misstep.
A new format that would see summer and autumn fixtures count towards some sort of league with a global winner will never rival the crown-jewel of the World Cup regardless, appealing mostly to those who erroneously claim what we are about to see lacks meaning.
Ireland have three chances to make history this month. What a shame that the three-Test tour will soon be history too.