For the first time in history there will not be a single northern hemisphere nation to contest the semi-finals. Many have heralded this as the clear and startling reality that many have refused to accept for so long, put simply, the southern hemisphere nations are just better, from 1 to 15 they are all more skilful, more intelligent rugby players. However, is this really the reality, simply the product of a different culture and coaching and if so what explains the rise of Argentina, a team once famed for its brutal forward dominated game now transformed into a flashy fast-paced game seeking to bring in their glittering backline?
New Zealand were simply devastating on Saturday against France just as much as France were devastatingly awful. New Zealand missed twenty tackles yet still only conceded a try, France missed twenty three and conceded nine tries. The All Blacks have a ruthlessness like no other. Rugby is their national sport, first team school games are aired on television, just to get into a Super Rugby roster you have to have shone at provincial level in the ITM cup, selection is tough even to get to the top of the club game let alone make the All Blacks. They are the most successful international side in terms of win record ever and in some ways should be seen as an anomaly, not to be included in the debate between the merits of the Northern and Southern hemisphere teams.
In contrast rugby has been struggling in Australia, faced with competition from Aussie Rules, the NRL and State of Origin rugby league clashes; the world cup has not been fully aired on terrestrial television there. However, they are one of the favourites, the current holders of the Rugby Championship and the only team to have beaten New Zealand this year. Against Scotland though they showed they are beatable. Going into this world cup Scotland held the wooden spoon, failing to beat even Italy in the Six Nations, yet were two minutes away from a world cup semi-final. Without Folau and Pocock Australia still managed to score 5 tries but looked far less reliable an outfit gifting Scotland two tries and allowing the game to remain so close as much as Scotland kept themselves in it, suggesting the north-south divide is much smaller.
In contrast to the majestic skills of New Zealand and Australia South Africa still rely on a brutal game. Demonstrative forwards grinding the opposition to a pulp, squeezing and draining the life out of the them to allow some of their flashy backs to make the most of the space. In some ways their game plan is very similar to that which has brought England success sporadically over the last few years; a dominant forward display laying the platform for the likes of Willie le Roux for South Africa and Anthony Watson of England to take advantage of.
In fact it is Argentina that are the most interesting southern hemisphere team. Australia, South Africa and New Zealand have traditionally been excellent and their junior sides have similarly been dominant usually making up three of the last four of the Junior World Championship every year. In contrast Argentina’s junior game has failed to emulate their Test team, suggesting it is not all about the lauded systems that makes the Southern Hemisphere so good. Argentina have been one of the most exciting teams this world cup, with a magical backline, despite never finishing anything other than last in the Rugby Championship. Their excellent pack is now complemented by a superb backline. Cordero has been one of the stand outs in the tournament, while Nicolas Sanchez and Juan Martin Hernandez have brought all the class which made them Galacticos at Toulon. So what has brought about this mercurial rise? Undoubtedly it is a combination of some truly gifted players, such as Hernandez, Cordero and Sanchez, and the experience of playing regularly together in the Rugby Championship, they have the advantage of a yearly tournament against the very best teams in the world. Although the Northern Hemisphere faces these Southern Hemisphere giants every Autumn it is not the same as playing them in a home and away competition, on their firm pitches, where you either have to match their game or face being annihilated as France were.
Rugby in the southern hemisphere, besides the excellence of New Zealand, who are possibly one of the most complete all round teams, is not that different from the northern hemisphere. It seems a crop of excellent players playing in a system that suites them, being coached very well is all it takes. Wales have an excellent system and fantastic coach but fail regularly against southern hemisphere sides, and this is down to them simply being better man for man. However good Taulupe Faletau was last Saturday Duane Vermeulen was just better. So can this change?
In the last three years England’s under 20 side has won 2 and lost one final of the Junior World Championship. Clearly there is a generation coming through gifted enough to challenge the best. Ford and Farrell are a product of a team that lost four years ago to New Zealand, while Watson won the year after, in an all northern hemisphere final against Wales. At that point the southern hemisphere did not cry out in panic that their game was on the decline and neither should we now. Give it four years and we will see at the next world cup whether the successful junior generation coming through has proven the nay Sayers wrong; if not then its time to worry…