At the start of this rugby World Cup, one statistic consistently stood in the way of any of the Northern hemisphere teams looking to claim the Webb Ellis Cup on 31st October: Southern hemisphere wins six, Northern Hemisphere wins one.
That record will soon read 7-1 after the four Rugby Championship nations overcame their Six Nations counterparts in the quarter finals last weekend, meaning that for the first time in Rugby World Cup history, all four of the semi-finalists will come from south of the Equator.
The failings of the European teams at the competition have sparked talks of a crisis in Northern Hemisphere rugby. This seems to be a little unfair and conceals the fact that both Wales and Scotland pushed their opponents to the limit in both of their quarter final matches.
Arguably most people seem let down by Ireland, who timidly lost a game in which they went 17-0 down within the first ten minutes and also by the French, who were unable to abandon the dismal rugby they’ve been playing for the last four years within a week. The incredible performances such as the 1999 semi-final and the 2007 quarter final seem very distant memories now.
However, blaming the club game in Europe for Northern hemisphere failings is ridiculous, seeing as a majority of Argentina’s players were attached to clubs in France’s Top 14 league, and they were able to make the semifinals.
In truth, the gulf in class between the two hemispheres is down to the Rugby Championship and specifically New Zealand’s involvement in the tournament. The ridiculously high standard set by the All Blacks each year as they try to stay ahead of the rest ultimately raises the standard of the other Southern Hemisphere teams who have to try and compete.
Whilst Northern Hemisphere teams do play New Zealand in the end-of year international matches, this hardly compares to the competitive nature of the Rugby Championship. The Bledisloe Cup matches between Australia and New Zealand certainly carry much more weight than matches against Northern Hemisphere opponents, and the annual competitive fixtures between the All Blacks and Argentina and South Africa allow these teams to also considerably raise their game in a competitive environment.
For all the talk of the Six Nations being Rugby’s most prestigious tournament, the fact that there is no pacesetting team within the Six Nations severely impedes the evolution of Northern Hemisphere Rugby, with power and brawn being preferred to brains and skills. This is not to say that players with excellent technical ability do not exist in Northern Hemisphere teams; however, they are seldom found throughout the entire first XV.
The Rugby Championship also promotes a certain style of play that the Six Nations simply doesn’t. With bonus points being awarded for both attack and defense, the competition is not about simply winning or losing but doing so in an attacking manner, with winning teams looking to score four tries, and the losing team attempting to finish within seven points of the winners.
It is interesting to see that on the final day of the 2015 Six Nations tournament, where victory in the championship was contingent points difference, all three of Wales, Ireland and England showed that they were capable of a much higher level of rugby than we have seen throughout this World Cup. Wales and England racked up record victories against Italy and France and Ireland scored the same amount of tries in their match against Scotland than they had in their previous four games combined.
Perhaps the problem isn’t that Northern Hemisphere teams don’t possess the ability to play at the same level as the Southern Hemisphere but simply that they do not find themselves in positions where an attacking fluid game is rewarded outside of the situation above.
It is probably true to say that Northern Hemisphere teams do need to evolve their game in order to perform more consistently against the Southern Hemisphere teams. Yet at the same time the idea that there is gaping chasm of quality between the two is a little harsh. It also doesn’t reflect what happened in at least two of the weekend’s quarterfinals.
Both Ireland and Wales, under the stewardship of Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, have begun to show signs that they can evolve in the same way the Southern Hemisphere teams have and England have been beginning to develop an attacking game based around their backs, which was inexplicably abandoned the moment the World Cup began.
The players and coaches who can transform the game in the Northern Hemisphere are largely in place, and the teams have proven that they are capable of so much more than they showed in the quarterfinals. All that is needed is a competitive environment in which this transformation can occur.
Photograph: Alasdair Massie via Wikimedia Commons