The rugby world is slowly turning in the favour of the northern hemisphere. This weekend is therefore a massive test for the European superpowers to see if they can finally get on an equal footing with their traditional opposition from the southern hemisphere. For a decade and a half, now, the big three nations from the southern hemisphere have dominated the game. Now at last, it looks as though Europe can level things up a bit.
You have to go back to 2003, of course, to find a time when England – or any northern hemisphere team – genuinely ruled the world. Since then, South Africa have won the World Cup once and New Zealand twice. Never was the dominance of the three southern superpowers more pronounced than in the last World Cup, on England’s home turf in 2015, when not one European team made it into the semi-finals.
Have those days gone? It looks like it. Four years ago, in this series of autumn internationals, there were 10 Test matches played with Australia, New Zealand or South Africa versus major European opposition – and Europe won just one of them. Last year, there was an even split, five wins each.
If this is genuine progress from the European teams, then this weekend is the time to prove it.
Where did southern strength go?
Let’s not kid ourselves over this. Yes, England have been brilliantly reinvented by their hard-nosed coach Eddie Jones. And yes, Ireland seem to go from strength to strength under the outstanding stewardship of their Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt.
However, though these two teams in particular have got stronger, the tipping of the balance of power in the world game is also largely down to the weakening of the south. South Africa have been hit hardest, then Australia, but New Zealand too. The drain of world-class players from the big three to the wealthy clubs in England, France and Japan has been relentless. No one can fault a young man for looking to maximise his earning potential, in the short lifespan that he has at the top of the game, but the result is that many of the best players have been leaving these countries in huge numbers to take up the big contracts on offer abroad. Most of these players are then unavailable for their national teams and the consequence, naturally, is their national team is weakened.
South Africa have been hit the hardest. In 2015, there were 257 South African players playing professional rugby abroad. Last year, that figure had gone up to 313. South Africa has its own massive political issues too – a quota system that obliges the coaches to favour black players over white.
So was it therefore any surprise that South Africa were so poor against Ireland last weekend? They were smashed 38-3, the kind of result that would have been unimaginable a few years back. However, this is the reality now. It is impossible for them to field anything closely resembling their best team.
South Africa have been hit the worst by the market forces that are rocking the international game. Australian rugby has had its own very public financial problems in recent years and so it too struggles to offer contracts that would persuade its best players to stay. The more the English clubs sign players like Matt Toomua (Leicester), Rob Horne (Northampton) and Will Skelton (Saracens), the more they are weakening Australia and indirectly assisting the European national sides.
Are we at tipping point?
Surely we must be. Two games this weekend will give us some of the answer. England versus Australia at Twickenham is a massive game in any year, but this time round it is a test in particular of the Wallabies’ resilience. They are an incredible rugby nation – every time you think they are on the canvas, they manage to rise up again.
They have numerous good players unavailable on Saturday again, so you think: if England cannot beat them now, then when? And yet the tipsters are split as to who is even favourites to win.
Somehow Australia are again a rising force. A Wallaby victory on Saturday would be an astonishing achievement and it would speak volume about the resilience and character of their players. Yet the circumstances hugely favour England.
The other game which takes the temperature of the battle of the hemispheres is France versus South Africa on Saturday evening. This is a battle of two sleeping giants. Neither rugby nation is anywhere near their best; if South Africa is the sick man of the south, France is the sick man of Europe. Here we pitch our sick man against yours.
Again, the northern hemisphere team should win, but again, you wonder at the resilience of the opposition. There were different circumstances last summer, but when France went down to South Africa for a three-Test series, the Springboks won 3-0.
Surely, France will turn them over now. Surely England will beat Australia. I expect two European wins from two. I expect the global game to shift further towards the northern hemisphere this weekend. However, because of the backbone, grit, fortitude and sheer bloody-mindedness of the Wallabies and the Springboks, I wouldn’t be surprised if it stays exactly where it is.
But what of the world champions?
Yes, the All Blacks remain on top of the world. They remain a healthy distance out in front ahead of the rest of the game.
This is in part because they have lost fewer players than Australia and South Africa. The players they have lost have been more the bench players, the back-up force, not so much your first-choice All Blacks. There is no doubt, though, that it hurts them considerably nevertheless. Also, they simply have excellence in such depth that they can withstand a few losses better than anyone else.
New Zealand play Scotland this weekend and no one expects anything other than a convincing All Black victory. They play Wales the following weekend and it might be a little closer, but not significantly so.
The big shame of the autumn fixture list is that it does not allow us to see the All Blacks against either England or Ireland. Until we see that next year, we just have to accept that the All Blacks remain ahead.
Yes, the world is changing. Yes, Europe is catching up. But the All Blacks are still out in front.