By Jim Harris
There is a huge disparity in world rugby right now. It’s massive. The gap between nations in the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere rugby is arguably the widest it’s ever been. The quartet of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina are better than the Europeans. In fact, they’re miles better. A depressing concept that we must take a big gulp and accept.
European rugby, boasting the likes of England, Wales, Ireland, France and more, and headlined by the annual Six Nations Championship, was once the envy of the rest of the world. But times have changed and it is the likes of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and even Argentina, who now rule the roost. The performances of these four sides at last year’s World Cup has put them at the top of the world rankings and is not simply a culmination of the changing times, but marks the beginning of a spell of global dominance by more and more southern hemisphere outfits.
It is no new notion that New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have been, and continue to be, powerhouses on the world stage but what really gets the alarm bells ringing north of the equator is the emergence and growth of Argentina. The once-upon-a-time minnows, have secured two semi-final appearances in the last three World Cups; beating the likes of France and Ireland on their way, and as of 2012, were integrated in to the Tri-Nations competition to form what we now know as ‘The Rugby Championship’: a faster, better version of the Six Nations.
The Argentinians were top points-scorers in their Rugby World Cup pool last year: a group which included eventual winners New Zealand; and they did a complete dismantling job of Ireland (who are current back-to-back Six Nations champions) in the quarter-finals at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. In fact, 2015’s quarter-finals consisted of four European nations, with none progressing in to the semis.
For me, there is no argument: if you put any one of South Africa, Australia or New Zealand in this current Six Nations Championships, they would win it hands down. What is growing increasingly apparent, though, is that those ‘minnows’, Argentina, would probably be very much involved in the competition at the right end of the table too.
So why is there no competition? Why has European rugby fallen behind so much?
Does it start at the grass-roots level? That’s certainly the argument many English football fans have for flailing behind the rest of the world with the round ball. Is it in the professional domestic leagues? Contrary to Europe, the Southern Hemisphere plays host to “Super Rugby”: a league, which as of 2016 will host the best franchise clubs from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, tailored to producing the best talent for Test level. Whilst Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy have their own take on ‘Super Rugby’ in the form of the Guinness Pro12, the rugby on show is, well, not so “super”. In England and France, they have their own leagues, consisting of clubs only from that country. The extent to which this has a bearing on the quality of rugby that transcends to international level is a debate that splits opinion. Former France Head Coach, Phillipe Saint-André, in fact suggested that the exhausting length and brutality of the Top 14 league was of no help to the Test ambitions on Les Blues. Indeed, many have argued that the greater importance put on domestic club rugby in England than anywhere else in the world has had a detrimental effect on the performances of the national side.
The big issue really is the Six Nations themselves. Do we make too much noise over their importance? As we saw only last week, the furore that surrounded the Scotland vs England match, not just in the media but from both sets of fans, was unquestionably out of hand. Whilst the beginning of a new Six Nations campaign should always be greeted with an awe of excitement, this was, put in to context, a Test between the eighth and ninth ranked teams in world rugby. Two years ago, that is a match between Samoa and Scotland: a clash that doesn’t quite capture the imagination.
England produced a dogged and hardly convincing display to overcome Scotland by just six points in one of the more scintillatingly dull 80 minutes of rugby you’ll see. Take it back just a few hours, and spectators were treated to a mistake-ridden France-Italy clash that would have inspired few, not least any future kickers out there, with Sébastien Bézy and Carlo Canna missing seemingly routine kicks throughout the afternoon. What the Ireland-Wales game lacked in quality, it made up for in entertainment, but only because of the draw. But where does “entertainment” get you in a results and performance-driven game? The game, whilst ending 16-16, was at times a ping-pong-esque kicking match played out by two teams conscious of not losing rather than being positive and looking for the win: the latter being a trait for which the likes of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have been praised for heavily over the past few years.
For Guardian rugby union correspondent, Tom Carey, it is the culture of the Six Nations which has restricted the freedom in some player’s games. Use England for example, they “have players with talent and vision like Jonathan Joseph, George Ford and ball-playing forwards like Joe Launchbury… the Six Nations just doesn’t encourage them to play fast, skilful, attacking, offloading rugby. It values power, control, kicking, territory.”
Is the Six Nations just “B-grade” rugby then? Is too much impetus put on matches that aren’t really that big? And are players instructed to play in a restrictive manner? Without question, the rivalry that is generated between countries during the Six Nations often outweighs the importance of team performances and that will inevitably corrupt the true interpretation of a game. Simply beating the opposition is enough in these games; it doesn’t matter how it is done (England v Scotland is a great example). When they eventually meet the southern hemisphere sides in the Autumn Internationals, or in the summer, the performances will matter and they will get rolled over with ease. N.B. Wales in New Zealand, England in Australia, and Ireland in South Africa later this year. Watch this space.
To close the gap, Cary says that the northern hemisphere must utilise more skilful players in their ranks: “I reject the theory that we do not produce skilful players in the northern hemisphere. We just don’t value them enough.” Indeed, England’s James Simpson-Daniel and more recently, Danny Cipriani, were both praised for their positive, flair-play on the ball but were both snubbed by national selectors because of the risk that they bring in their play.
The strengths in the southern hemisphere sides comes in their powerful set piece, their physicality in the tackle and at the breakdown, as well as that creativity out wide. These three key elements are what have made them so successful, yet none of the northern hemisphere sides have got them all ticked off at the moment. All of the top teams in Europe lack in at least one of those areas. Fact.
The latest appointment by the English Rugby Football Union, of Australian-born Head Coach Eddie Jones now completes a clean sweep of southern hemisphere coaches for the home nations, so will we now see the gap begin to close? Well, Wales have been under the reign of New Zealander Warren Gatland for some time and are still no closer. Improvements have been made in the Irish and Scottish camps under the tenure of South African, Joe Schmidt, and Vern Cotter of New Zealand respectively, but competing at the sort of levels set by New Zealand and co. still seems a long way off. For England and France, the best chance of returning to the top of the world may well come from a re-structuring of the domestic league system, although fans of the Aviva Premiership might hope that Eddie Jones can resurrect things on an international level before such changes may need to be considered.