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2023: A record year for international XVs

Test and international fifteens rugby has never been in better health than in 2023.

As 2023 draws to a close it is worth looking back on a remarkable year for test and international XVs rugby.

Ten years ago the entire format seemed under threat. The rise of sevens meant that 2013 saw only 54 tests played by 25 teams, after only 48 (and 24 teams) the year before. And the decline was due to continue. Leaving aside 2014 (which was a World Cup year), 2015 was to see a mere 35 tests played by just 19 teams.

2023, on the other hand, saw 98 test matches (played by 36 nations) - a record number of tests in a non-World Cup year, and the second highest total ever (just behind the 101 in 2022). Indeed, but for the postponement of the Asian Division 1 tournament and a couple of slightly odd “non-test” status decisions, 2023 would have beaten 2022.

What is more away from the official test matches, there were also 29 age-group fifteens internationals - needless to say, not only a record but more than twice as many as in 2022 and more than all the age group games in 2017, 2018 and 2019 put together (or, come to that, any other three pre-COVID years).

And added that there were a further 23 games played by national XVs that were not given test status, for one reason or another.

So, taking the broadest possible definition of international XVs, there were 150 matches in 2023, a total leaving every other year – including 2022 – far, far behind.

In short, there has never been a year like it.

The reason is not hard to find. 27 of those tests were played as part of WXV, and that tournament – plus the competitions that took place regionally to find qualifiers – was a big factor in the growth of international XVs.

But this rising tide also lifted the format even away from WXV. Three nations – Bulgaria, Croatia and Latvia – made their test debuts, the five-team European Trophy was the largest for many years and – although not of test match status – international fifteens rugby returned to the Caribbean for the first time since 2011 as the RAN Championship adopted the format for the first time.

Other noteworthy developments included Portugal going on tour to Brazil (no European XVs team, outside the 6N+Spain, has ever toured outside Europe before), a Welsh age group team – their U20s – travelling overseas (to Canada in this case) for the first time since 2005, and the expansion of the U18 Six Nations festival to a complete round-robin. We also now have active (ie. playing matches) international U20 XVs programmes in at least 12 nations, in addition to the Six Nations U18 squads. We surely cannot be far away from a U20 XVs World Cup?

A little more detail…

The teams:

The 36 test playing nations in 2023 were: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroun, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Czechia, England, Fiji, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Latvia, Madagascar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Portugal, Samoa, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Tonga, Tunisia, Uganda, United States, and Wales

Five teams played in 2022 but did not play 2023. All were from Africa, and played in the Africa Cup qualifiers last year. This was because there was only a tournament in 2023 for “Division 1” of the Africa Cup, but there are suggestions that we may see a Division 2 and maybe even a Division 3 in 2024.

Most successful:

Only three nations had 100% records in 2023 – England, Croatia and Tunisia. However, the latter two only played against one other team, so their 100% record is a bit of a technicality, leaving England as the standout team of the year.

Statistically the most successful teams behind these three were Portugal (80%, 4 wins from 5); Japan (75%, 6 wins from 8); New Zealand (71.4%, 5 wins from 7), Scotland (66.7%, 6 wins from 9), Finland and Netherlands (also 66.7%, but 2 wins from 3).

The most successful age-group team was France with a 100% record in seven games played at U18 and U20 level.

At the other end of the spectrum, the United States won just 25% of their games (2 from 8) and were arguably the least successful team, at least among those who played more than four games or competed in WXV. Of those outside WXV who played more than two tests Brazil won only one from four, and Cameroun, Papua New Guinea, Sweden and Uganda played three tests without a win.

Most active:

Four teams played 10 tests in 2023. That England should be one of them is no surprise, but the other three - Italy, South Africa and Spain – are interesting as “traditionally” all three were nations who had few opportunities to play test rugby, outside of regional tournaments, and again WXV is largely the explanation.

What is more, South Africa and Spain also played two non-test games (and Italy one), with Spain’s two non-tests both being against national selections (Japan and Italy), so the prize for “most active” should perhaps go to Spain.

In addition, Canada, Fiji, Scotland and Wales all played nine tests, and a further six (Australia, France, Ireland, Japan, Kenya and United States) played eight, with again WXV accounting for most of this.

Australia have perhaps benefitted most. They played more tests in a single year in 2023 than they did in the years between any two World Cups prior to 2021. Indeed, they played more tests in 2023 than New Zealand did, which was definitely a “first”.

The most active test-playing team who did not play in WXV was Portugal, who played five tests. Brazil played six times, but only four of their games were tests.