By Sam Martin
The Southern Hemisphere nations have traditionally dominated the sport of rugby in a beautiful way. Whereas England, Ireland and France have at times tried to win through nothing but brute force, the likes of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have used skill, beguiling precision and utter brilliance to lacerate oppositions across the decades. The Rugby Championship (the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of the Six Nations) has usually been the premier showcase of such skill and talent but, in recent years, a pattern has emerged that shows the direction the sport may be taking in this part of the world.
Domination in Black
New Zealand have at points, especially in the last decade, been simply unfair with regards to international rugby. The All Blacks supposedly had one of those generations that could never be matched in the early 2010s with the likes of McCaw, Carter, Nonu and Mealamu dominating the game to an unprecedented level. However, the production line of talent found in this tiny nation has now produced super-humans along the lines of Dane Coles, Kieran Reid, Aaron Smith and the phenomenally talented Barrett boys, a trio who all received a cap in the final Lions game.
These players form the backbone of a team that is also brimming with young talent. It must be remembered that lock pairing Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, both with over fifty caps, are still both under 28 and will go on playing together for at least another World Cup.
Sam Cane has filled the enormous shoes of Richie McCaw with aplomb and the exceptional Reiko Ioane has proven so good this year for the Auckland Blues that he managed to easily dislodge incumbent winger Julian Savea, a man who scored 46 tries in 54 tests. The factory line keeps on ticking over in cities like Auckland, Dunedin and Hamilton, and New Zealand’s strength in depth marks them out as the greatest rugby team on the planet at the moment.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the centres – the off-loading master Sonny Bill Williams, the dependable workhorse Ryan Crotty, the dazzling and daring Anton Leinart-Brown and the ‘minibus’ Ngani Luamape, a man who rips apart defences in Super Rugby with the ease of a hot knife through butter.
What is even more amazing is that New Zealand boast a wealth of other options yet to even receive a cap this year. Vince Aso, who plays outside-centre for the Hurricanes, scored the highest number of tries this year across all of Super Rugby, and yet due to the plethora of stars he cannot even get a look-in.
Charles Piutau has made the decision that he will never be able to conquer this mountain of centre talent and so moved to the Northern Hemisphere, where he was voted Aviva Premiership Player of the year in 2016 before moving to Ulster to rip apart Pro12 defences for fun. The winner of that Player of the Year award in 2017 was another New Zealand Centre – Jimmy Gopperth. There is a credible argument to say that New Zealand are not only the best in the Southern Hemisphere but also claim that prize in the north.
The reason behind this is simple – culture. This word is never spoken of with great pride by ‘rugby traditionalists’ who see it as nothing more than getting players to write their aspirations for the season on a whiteboard, going out for coffee with the ‘lads’ (James Haskell style) and preaching about the value of togetherness. It conjures up the failings of the Stuart Lancaster era in English rugby where being an upstanding man was more important than skill.
But in New Zealand this culture is different. It is focused on the idea of one single organism on the field rather than 15 individual players. The All Blacks seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to being able to find the perfect supporting line, pick an off-load expertly or drift wide in preparation for a cross-field kick.
To see this perfectly, all one has to do is look at the slow motion replay of any try the New Zealanders score. You see players screaming instructions behind the man with the ball, letting him know where they are, what line to take, what pass to pull off. It is like ballet or a fine theatrical piece, combined with the ruthlessness of a Roman Legion.
The All Blacks certainly have no mercy gene in them, piling on points even when the game is well and truly won. This makes them not only the best team in rugby but, statistically, one of the most successful international sports teams ever, if not the best. No one can match their mentality, their execution and their brilliance. Compared to their old foes across the sea, New Zealand have never looked better.
Chaos in Gold
While their rivals in New Zealand have accrued every major accolade the rugby world has to offer, the men in the green and gold of Australia have suffered through years of poor performances, chaotic management and dwindling support. The once mighty Wallaby team are now a shadow of their former selves, and recent drubbings at the hands of New Zealand have done nothing to diminish the worry and panic that is clearly present in Australian rugby.
Ultimately it starts with their coach, Michael Cheika, who has reiterated his attempt to create his own ‘culture’ among the Wallabies but to minimal success. Cheika is an abrasive character, frequently caught spewing foul language by the cameras cunningly positioned in the coaching boxes, and a man who has frequently used all manner of tactics to rattle opponents.
A favourite of his is to use the Australian press to spread malicious rumours regarding the opposition. Last week it was the re-hashing of the year-old scandal about All Black scrum-half Aaron Smith, and this week it was smearing New Zealand’s lock Brodie Retallick with accusations that we was among the dirtiest and troublesome players in international rugby – a rumour that has very little substance indeed. What Cheika seems unable to understand is that this only appears to galvanise opponents and distract his own team.
The first match of the Bledisloe Cup, a three-match tournament between Australia and New Zealand, showed exactly how ineffective Cheika’s strategies proved. Australia put in one of the worst performances by a supposed ‘Tier One’ nation in the last decade, surrendering a frankly unbelievable eight tries in the first 45 minutes of the game.
His players looked distracted, unable to defend and unable to work together in any form of effective unit. They looked like a team thrown together at the last minute, with no experience of playing together and no understanding of what makes a high class international rugby team. Which, frankly, is what they are.
Australian rugby is in a dire state. The governing body of Australian Rugby, the ARU, has just closed down one of the country’s five Super Rugby franchises because they did not believe it was financially viable to support so many teams. Thanks to the axing of the Western Force, there is now a huge void in Western Australia, with no professional rugby union teams.
Across the national and club sides, spectator numbers are at an all-time low, with just over 35,000 people turning up to watch Australia lose to Scotland in July. It was only a decade ago that the Wallabies were playing to 87,000 people in Melbourne, but they have been reduced to failing to sell out smaller stadiums as the population of this sport-mad country turn towards Rugby League and Aussie Rules Football instead.
The players are hardly an inspiring bunch either. In the opening test against the All Blacks, half the team looked like they had no desire to be there and the other half looked like lost school boys. Even the most avid rugby fan would have a tough time spotting Ned Hannigan or Curtis Rona on the pitch. Captain Michael Hooper played like a headless chicken, giving away stupid penalties left, right and centre, and the half-back axis of the team, Will Genia and Bernard Foley, did their best job to break the sound barrier with the speed with which they got rid of the ball as soon as it came near them.
Full-back Israel Folau is the only player of any real international calibre, and he looks an increasingly frustrated figure on the pitch, unable to actually find team-mates who provide any sort of winning spark in games. Australian rugby clearly suffers from poor coaching, illogical management at the top level and a dearth of talent, and, unsurprisingly, this is leading to people walking away from the sport in droves.
Two years ago, the Wallabies got to the World Cup Final, but other than that successes have been few and far between. They last won a series with New Zealand in 2002. They lost to the Lions in 2013, England in 2016, and twice to Scotland this year already. Compared to the power of the All Blacks, the Wallabies are stalling. If they do not fix things soon, big trouble is on the horizon.
The second Bledisloe Cup match between Australia and New Zealand provided some positives for Australia, namely that they could challenge on a good day. Their defence was greatly improved, although it would have been hard to be worse than they were in the first test.
Despite the Kiwis putting in a very poor performance, they still found a way to win in the dying moments as the mercurial Beauden Barrett crossed for his second try of the match. New Zealand picked up injuries, and yet were able to bring players off the bench that fitted seamlessly into the team, something that Australia really lack.
The Aussies put in a fantastic effort, but they cannot keep pace with any teams at the moment. Their club rugby future is hardly much better, considering just one of five club franchises made the Super Rugby playoffs compared to four of New Zealand’s five.
The Autumn Internationals are crucial for Australia as they will face Northern Hemisphere teams who believe they can get a major scalp. If the Wallabies come away with anything other than three wins out of four, Michael Cheika’s job will be under serious threat.
Australia and New Zealand are at either end of the spectrum at the moment, baffling considering the strength of Southern Hemisphere rugby previously. For the sake of international rugby, Australia need to pick things up, as a powerhouse being utterly diminished is always bad for the sport. Nonetheless, it will be incredibly interesting to see how these two teams progress over the rest of 2017.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons