As the Rugby World Cup rumbles on towards its inevitable conclusion, fans of Northern Hemisphere rugby are left ruminating on what could have been and just how it all went so wrong. For the first time in the competition’s history, no Northern hemisphere side made it to the semi-finals.
England and Italy crashed out ignominiously in the group stage while Wales, France and Ireland were comprehensively beaten in the quarters. Only Scotland emerged with any real credit after a shambolic refereeing display denied them a much deserved semi-final spot but, even after such a brave performance, their lack of big game experience was betrayed by the failed lineout that lead to Australia’s winning penalty.
While the inevitable inquests and reviews into the Northern nations’ calamitous campaigns have already begun, talk has largely been of changing coaches, selection policies or individual players with England’s Stuart Lancaster coming in for particular stick after abandoning the attacking philosophy he has nurtured for the past few years in favour of a more robust, defensive attitude.
So far though, very few commentators have spoken out about the most glaring difference between the northern and southern sides; namely the vast gulf in technical skills between players. While New Zealand’s rampaging forwards were offloading with practised ease, time and again we saw the likes of Wales’ Alex Cuthbert run into contact with no intent or ability to make the kind of quick, clever passes or offloads that have led to some truly spectacular tries by the Southern hemisphere sides.
Some have claimed that a big part of why the Southern sides have such a seemingly massive advantage in international rugby is the respective strength and structure of their domestic leagues. While this does not paint the whole picture, it is worth considering that the dominant All Blacks side all play their rugby in Super Rugby, an international club league full of the kind of enterprising and entertaining rugby that characterises their national side.
In stark contrast, while many of the Home Nations players also play their club rugby in the UK, the Premiership, Top14 and the Pro12 lack much of the pace and quality that Super Rugby regularly exposes Southern hemisphere players to. Perhaps the best example of the value of a fiercely competitive club league such as the Pro12 is the stunning improvement that the Argentinian national team has experienced since the introduction of more of their national team to Super Rugby.
As the common argument goes, only by playing against the best can you become one of the best. While other leagues are not without their value, Super Rugby appears to have evolved much more in line with how international rugby is now played while the other club leagues have fallen behind and in the process left Northern hemisphere teams with players whose only exposure to fast-paced, high velocity rugby is when they get to the international stage.
By exposing their players to the kind of rugby they expect their national teams to play, the Southern hemisphere nations gain an instant advantage over their Northern counterparts who are forced to try and change the mind-sets of their players to fit the national coaches’ strategy. This, when coupled with the obvious superiority of the technical skills of the players across the Southern teams, leaves Northern teams at a distinct disadvantage and goes some way to explaining why the Northern teams had such a poor World Cup across the board.
There is no clear answer about how Northern hemisphere teams can close the gap on the South but at some point it will require a concerted effort between the various Northern club leagues and competitions and perhaps a serious re-evaluation of the culture of Northern hemisphere rugby.
Photo courtesy of Alastair Massey