Can the Southern Hemisphere Rugby World Cup stranglehold be broken?
A new season of top-level Northern Hemisphere domestic rugby starts in the next few weeks. With excitement building on the domestic front let’s take a sober look at the international scene in Europe. With the tenth men’s Rugby World Cup in France now two years away, can the Southern Hemisphere Rugby World Cup stranglehold be broken?
Let’s examine the reasons for this stranglehold on the Webb Ellis Cup. Or perhaps more pertinently, why is it that the sum total of Northern Hemisphere winners amounts to just one? There are several factors at play here which can be summarised this way: health of domestic league, youth and grassroots, environment, genetics, past results and psyche.
Clive Woodward’s England
Clive Woodward’s England have been the only team thus far to buck the trend. Woodward was noted for his attitude of professionalism. His success came in getting his talented England squad to buy into the ethos. Along with Woodward’s professionalism came scrupulous attention to detail with regard to preparation. He was also blessed with perhaps the best ever generation of English players, chock full of world-class talent, leaders and hard workers.
England have gone close on three previous occasions: Losing to Australia in the 1991 Final, to South Africa in 2007 and again to the Boks in 2019. France are the only other team in the Northern Hemisphere to go close and take part in Rugby World Cup finals. They lost the clincher to the All Blacks back in the inaugural tournament of 1987, and again to New Zealand in 2011.
Argentina and the Pacific Island Nations
In the Southern Hemisphere, Argentina and the Pacific Island Nations are the exceptions that prove the rule. While being top sides and always fronting up, the deepest any of those nations have gone in a Rugby World Cup is Argentina’s third place in France in 2007.
Pacific Island nations have suffered at the hands of the global game at times. Underinvestment, exclusion from rugby’s top table in terms of decision making and an exodus of their best talent have hampered their progress.
Health of Domestic League
This is a huge topic that deserves its own stand-alone article. Domestic Leagues will be looked at in brief here. England and France’s leagues look to be in rude health in comparison with the Pro 14 in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. Ireland’s dominance over the Heineken Champions Cup has faded with France and England gaining the upper hand.
Look deeper though, and the makeup of a lot of the French and English teams is not purely made up of home-grown talent. The success of professional rugby means that players from all over the globe are plying their trade in Europe as well as in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as the host nation is nurturing and developing local talent as well.
The picture in the Southern Hemisphere is a complicated one too. With competing interests, financial considerations and constant adaption and change. What isn’t in doubt is the high standard of domestic rugby there. Attack is rewarded, especially in New Zealand where a high risk, high reward game is witnessed time after time. In South Africa competition amongst the best teams is strong. The power of their forward play allied with their skilled backs and strong defence is a formidable mix.
Youth and Grassroots
Most people in rugby know about the abundance of touch rugby in New Zealand. Rugby is top dog here and most youngsters are chucking the oval ball around at a young age. Emphasis at this stage is not contact, winning or strength but skills, teamwork and pure fun. There is some competition for overall dominance from cricket, rugby league and football is growing but rugby remains the main game.
The same applies in South Africa and to some extent Australia. In Australia however, rugby union has slowly but surely been caught and will be usurped by sports such as football and surfing. Cricket, rugby league and Australian Rules Football are already more popular. That helps to explain why South Africa and New Zealand are the current superpowers of the game.
In Europe football is king for better or worse. Finance, talent, manpower is all sucked up by this behemoth of a pastime.
Everyone likes to joke about UK weather but is the Southern Hemisphere climate more conducive to winning rugby? This isn’t the biggest of factors and New Zealand gets its fair share of the wet stuff. Especially on their South Island. Facilities in the Northern Hemisphere are second to none, at least they are at the elite level.
The twenty-first-century distractions of social media and gaming mean younger people are having their eyes drawn away from rugby. This is the case in both hemispheres but may be especially prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere where urban spread is swallowing up the countryside at a greater rate.
Put simply, Southern Hemisphere teams may have a higher percentage of bigger, faster and stronger rugby players. It is not a romantic notion for rugby neutrals but when we’re talking about fine margins, this could be the extra 2 or 3% that takes South Africa, New Zealand and Australia over the line in the big games.
England and France have managed over the years to get results against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa home and away. Perhaps not consistently but have shown what’s possible. For Wales, Scotland and Ireland it’s been harder. Wales have beaten the Springboks at home but not away, Australia have been defeated at home and away (once in Sydney in the sixties and once in each of the World Cups of 1987 and 2019). The All Blacks still hold sway over the Welsh since the 1950’s.
Ireland recently scaled that particular Everest by beating the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016 and in Dublin in 2018. Still, optimism must be tempered by the fact that an away win against NZ remains elusive. They have also got results against South Africa and Australia, home and away. Ireland would admit that they have underperformed at World Cups.
New Zealand also have dominated Scotland, the best the Scots have been able to produce being two draws, the last of which is nearly forty years ago. They have had more success against Australia (winning a third of their meetings). They have had some rare victories against South Africa without ever beating them away.
This is an interesting one. Although rugby takes pride of place in New Zealand and to a slightly lesser extent South Africa as their main sport (Football is the biggest spectator sport in South Africa, although rugby has more registered players). They don’t seem to suffer the same angst as Northern Hemisphere nations on the big stage. The reason is threefold. Firstly they play with less fear because they trust their skills honed over decades. Secondly, their media/fans, although critical at times are not as merciless and unforgiving as they can be in the UK. Lastly and paradoxically, Southern Hemisphere teams don’t take the game quite as seriously as they do in the Northern Hemisphere. Sure they love the game but they have the ability to move on after a defeat, rather than getting mired in too much soul searching or navel-gazing.
Winning helps of course and confidence is everything in all sports. Success breeds a victor’s mentality which is hard for opponents to overcome. Just ask the Welsh rugby fraternity when it comes to facing New Zealand.
Noticeable in the Lions loss to South Africa this year was that the Boks were more ‘streetwise’. It may be becoming a cliché and be open to a great deal of interpretation but ‘streetwise’ rugby trumps ‘attractive’ rugby every time. Attractive rugby is also a cliché, truth be told. Balanced rugby is key, knowing when to stick or twist and playing what’s in front of you. Top teams as well as top players adapt moment by moment during eighty minutes of rugby and persist when things aren’t going well.
Can the Southern Hemisphere Rugby World Cup stranglehold be broken? A conclusion
The answer to Thomas Booth‘s question is yes. All the Northern Hemisphere nations have a chance. Some nations have a better opportunity than others admittedly. In 2023 France, as the home nation, must be in with a shout. They have a strong team of coaches currently, including the legendary Shaun Edwards. They have a good squad with some world-class talent at scrum-half in Antoine Dupont. While not quite at his level they have two quality tens in Matthieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack. Their pack is more of an unknown quantity at the top level and they are somewhat unproven. Watch out if the team clicks though as France have been known to take even the best teams to the cleaners.
England are in a time of transition after a difficult Six Nations but have the financial means and large player pool of talent to always challenge. The Celtic nations can excite and threaten but until they overcome the Southern Hemisphere juggernauts away from home they are likely to come up short.
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