For the first time in World Cup history, all four quarter-final matches of the Rugby World Cup took place between a northern and southern hemisphere side. All four southern hemisphere sides emerged victorious; in some cases resoundingly so. The weekend’s action has exposed the huge gulf in class which exists between rugby north, and south of the equator. Perhaps the biggest northern hemisphere international competition, the Six Nations, looks now like a loser’s tournament. A tournament where the runners-up fight over who is the best of the worst. These seem like harsh words, but something needs to change. Why is the south so much better?
It is perhaps the France and Ireland games which stand out the most. They had a difficult task, granted, but they failed to turn up in style. Les Bleus are famously the all or nothing side, brilliant or simply awful. Four years ago, in light of this result, it’s easy to forget that France reached the final with the All Blacks and lost by just one point. The French media has unanimously slammed the side, calling for big changes to everything from coaching style to the domestic league system.
Ireland were arguably considered the best of the European sides heading into the World Cup. This demonstrates the nativity of northern hemisphere rugby fans, as this was perhaps based on Ireland’s victory at the Six Nations. In reality, they finished level on points with England and Wales, defeated by the latter, in what was a scrappy tournament. The Irish started extremely slowly against Argentina and it was 17-0 with only 15 minutes gone. In fairness, the team was plagued by injuries and they fought hard to bring the score closer. Unfortunately, the team was spent, allowing the southern hemisphere Argentinians to finish comfortable victors.
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Scotland and Wales had similar games in a sense, they both fought hard but were defeated in the final moments. Wales ran out of steam and were unable to prevent a South Africa try in the last five minutes of their match. Scotland were the surprise package of the quarter-finals. To their credit, they entered the World Cup as outsiders; wooden spoon ‘winners’ of the year’s Six Nations. They matched Australia better than Wales, England and the rest, and were defeated by a controversial point in the dying seconds. Again, is this an indication of how irrelevant the Six Nations actually is? Has the World Cup always been a stage for the south to walk all over the north?
Let’s discuss that famous time a northern hemisphere side last won the World Cup in 2003. Does England winning that year prove that actually, the north haven’t always been bad? Well no, it doesn’t when you analyse how England reached and won the final that year; not to take anything away from the result. In their group, England faced one big southern hemisphere side in South Africa, who were defeated fairly easily via the boot of Jonny Wilkinson. The rest of the group, northern or southern, were little to worry about.
Here’s the significant bit. England faced Wales in the quarters and France in the semi-finals; two northern hemisphere sides they play on an annual basis, both were despatched. New Zealand had already taken care of South Africa and were then knocked out by the Aussies; quite convenient for the English all in all. What further compounds this argument is New Zealand’s subsequent walk in the park against France to settle third place.
England tactically clever
The final, as they say, was history. England were tactically very clever, taking the Aussie’s to extra time. Step forward Wilkinson and more to the point his boot, to notch a drop goal in the 100th minute and win the World Cup for England. Does this run of games really prove that England were a superior northern hemisphere side that year and counter the argument that the south have always been superior? It’s a matter of opinion, but personally I think not. It was all very convenient; not that England had a choice.
So what is the difference between the north and the south in terms of Rugby? There are possibly a number of contributing factors, but Brian Moore in the Telegraph argues that it’s down to the skills being taught at junior level. Indeed, culturally there is also a huge difference in what the game means to children across the different regions of the world. Moore suggests teams like Australia and New Zealand have far superior basic skills such as breakdown, pace and running and it’s easy to see he’s right from the clashes between sides from each side of the equator. Furthermore, northern sides are coached to try and out-muscle their opponents; France are a good example of this. When such a philosophy meets a southern hemisphere side, brains beat brawn nearly every time.
Narrow development of home-grown talent
Another argument made concerns the domestic systems of rugby in the respective parts of the world. Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian club sides all play in their own Pro 12 league whereas the English and French sides play in a tiered system which features relegation. Moore and others argue that the money involved in the European Championship, which features teams from all six nations, has encouraged sides to be shortsighted and narrowed their development of home-grown talent. Indeed the French side Toulon, who have won the competition three years running, have spent vast sums of money acquiring talent from all over the world.
The southern hemisphere’s pinnacle tournament, Super Rugby 15, is far more difficult to play in as an individual. A player from Australia or New Zealand must first be a top player for their club, to then be picked for their region, which can then compete in the Super 15 featuring some of the best players in the world. Of course, the level of competition in this tournament is huge and inspires children in junior rugby from all over the southern hemisphere.
The World Cup is over for the northern hemisphere. England left their own party ridiculously early and the rest of the Six Nations contingent swiftly followed; Scotland kicking and screaming. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that something will have to change before 2019 to avoid another inevitable walkover. The Six Nations proves nothing.
Can the Six Nations really help teams to judge how they will perform at a World Cup? Give your opinion in the comment box below!