Southern hemisphere talent has played a pivotal role in north's rise, argues RYAN VREDE.
I was among numerous rugby writers to dismiss England's 38-21 defeat of New Zealand in December 2012 as an aberration. In hindsight, it was an immature position to hold and failed to take into account numerous factors that had contributed to it. The media talk of England winning the World Cup in 2015 following that win was optimistic at best, but it would be foolish to discount them as a potential force on their home turf, in the same way Wales and France will be stronger than they were in the 2011 competition.
The Lions' Test series victory challenged me further. The northern hemisphere's best teams have improved significantly and it has been coming for a while. You only need to look at Wales being edged to the line by the Springboks in the opening pool match at the 2011 World Cup, Ireland's defeat of Australia in the same tournament and France only just being denied by the Blacks in the final. There are plenty of other recent examples to cite.
I feel much of this has to with the positive effects of southern hemisphere players, particularly the elite ones, in European leagues and particularly in the European Cup. Now, before the lynch mob is deployed, understand that I have an appreciation for other significant contributing factors – the emergence of some highly gifted European players in a relatively short period of time for one. This isn't an attempt to steal the north's thunder, nor is it born out of bitterness. But one cannot discount the massive positive influence the southern influx has had.
For years the growth in numbers of foreign players in football's English Premier League has vexed English players (current and former) and media personalties. These foreigners are wrongly seen as the main reason the national team struggles to compete with the world's top nations and the root of their struggle to win a major trophy. More foreigners, they reason, equates to fewer opportunities for English players and thus seriously undermines their national cause.
This thinking is deeply flawed. I fail to see how playing with and against some of the world's best players isn't a catalyst for improvement. In every way England's national football team has benefited from the presence of top foreign talent. Indeed the team's record post-Bosman ruling in 1995 (the European Court of Justice ruling that allowed the free movement of players between European Union countries) has risen from 64% to 70%.
Of course it is nonsensical for an inferior foreigner to occupy a spot that could potentially be filled by a local of equal or superior quality. The point I'm trying to make relates to the recruitment of elite foreigners, and in this regard Europe's top national rugby teams, and now the Lions, have started to see the fruits of the southern invasion.
I'd suggest you'd find it extremely hard, near impossible, to build an argument that Schalk Brits hasn't improved his team-mates and opponents alike as a Saracens player. The same can be said of Bakkies Botha, Joe van Niekerk and Danie Rossouw at Toulon, Ruan Pienaar at Ulster, and Frans Steyn and Jean de Villiers when at Racing Métro and Munster respectively.
These are just a few South African examples. Carl Hayman and Matt Giteau, for example, would have had the same effect at Toulon, as would Nick Evans at Harlequins, Luke McAlister at Sale and then Toulouse, the list could go on and on. The arrival of Bryan Habana (Toulon) for the 2013-14 season will further amplify not only the European Cup holders' threat but force an improvement in their opponents as a bid to counter him. The more players of Habana's or similar quality opt to sign for foreign clubs, especially those in the European Cup, the greater the improvement in Europe's top national teams you'll see.
The same can be said of Japan, which is fast becoming the destination of choice for the southern hemisphere's best. Already Fourie du Preez and Jaque Fourie, widely considered the pre-eminent players in the game in their positions before their departure, are stationed there, and the league will increasingly become populated with players of that ilk given the massively lucrative contracts on offer for playing fewer games of significantly lower intensity than you would in the south or Europe.
Again, I have to stress that this isn't the only factor in the north's rise, but you'd be a fool to dismiss it as anything but a central reason for their recent improvement.
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