The biggest question posed during the latter stages of this past World Cup had to be the widening gap between northern rugby and their southern counterparts, plus why and how this is happening. A large factor in this gap is the player quality and styles.
Take into account fly halves of the southern hemisphere such as Carter and Pollard. They can carry very well and tackle just like a back rower whilst keeping their kicking skills off tee and in play. Whereas northern hemisphere outside halves are also very good at kicking in play and off the tee, they often lack the tackling and carrying abilities off the top tens in the world, as perhaps Owen Farrell and Johnny Sexton showed us in the World Cup. However with half backs like Sanchez and Pollard gracing our game it is hard to see how our northern hemisphere players can compete, even if players like George Ford and Dan Biggar have started playing a rugged southern style.
In northern rugby there seems to be a mentality that we need to be larger in bulk to compete with the naturally large Boks, Pumas, All Blacks and Aussies and perhaps this has taken away from the learning of skills. As Wales showed up front with a struggling pack for technique. Although since the last World Cup the new nations have developed a much larger skill set with Georgia, Romania and Japan all having a strong base to work these off. These nations have risen in the world rankings and even pulled off large upsets, (sorry South Africa). I think that in this modern era, there has to be quick ball and with better half backs and full backs playing the game, more so in the southern hemisphere perhaps the NH is being left behind slightly and this is where the gap is.
Also on the wings for example we try to force larger men out such as George North and Alex Cuthbert in order to get the size up but this isn’t always the true or correct option and so we lose out on skills the majority of the time. Despite a poor World Cup from our northern hemisphere wingers we still trial these larger men over smaller, more agile men and this could also contribute to the widening gap. As for playing style we seem to try too much with forward play in the NH whereas in the SH they know where and when to play running rugby, which cost Wales and England vs. Australia in the groups. This is why it was refreshing to see sides like Japan take it to the Springboks right up until the final play in added time, which gained them arguably the largest ever scalp in a World Cup.
WILL THE GAP WIDEN?
With teams such as Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France all having decent tournaments I’d say it has got to a point where the game cannot widen any more, especially with the ”golden generation” of All Blacks starting to run down the other side of the hill and even starting to retire, although the new crop isn’t shabby at all. The development of the new nations such as Georgia and Romania will also close this gap in time as they produce a better internal structure and maybe even a few pro teams in harder leagues. There could be a shout for a Georgian team to replace one of the Italian sides in the Pro12, If the poor progress continues by Zebre and Benetton Treviso. As for the skill gap widening, I can see it widening further if the NH nations prioritize weightlifting and altitude training over skills. Especially in key areas such as half backs and the front row. Overall I’d have to say that there is a gap that has widened in recent years, but with the development of the new nations expect this gap to slowly close in the next four to six years as these develop.
COMBATING THIS GAP
Northern hemisphere are starting to combat this gap it seems on a whole, with all four UK nations bringing in southern hemisphere coaches as their latest head coach. USA and Canada will be in a professional league that is in full swing by the next World Cup. Wales are bringing home lots of Welsh talent by using the national dual contracts (NDC’s) and English sides like Bath are splashing the cash on big name players such as Luke Charteris. Is this enough though, with four years to develop these players and a Lions tour in 2017 we are sure to have to develop these ideas and implement further ones in an aid to keep northern hemisphere rugby at equal with the south.
One thing we have to be careful of is competing for southern hemisphere players, as yes we could do with foreign talent and experience to aid our youngsters and players, but at the same time we don’t want to drown out home nations players for Kiwi’s and Aussies that are walking down the other side of the hill looking for a last pay check before retiring into the sun. A good balance is a way to ensure we can keep up with southern hemisphere style whilst the coaches from down under can bring their tactics and styles to try and introduce to our game , which I thought Scotland did best in this last world cup gone.
Overall I wouldn’t be worried about northern hemispheres progress as Wales, England, Ireland and Scotland are all on the forward step and carrying good amounts of players; home based and foreign that can aid us to close the gap on our southern counterparts.