The gap between the northern and southern hemispheres has never been greater, writes JON CARDINELLI in London.
South Africa will play New Zealand in the first World Cup semi-final this Saturday. Argentina will tackle Australia in the second play-off on Sunday. Regardless of what transpires over the next two weeks, the Webb Ellis Cup will remain in the southern hemisphere.
It’s been 28 years since the first World Cup tournament was staged in Australasia. While we don't know who will win the 2015 title yet, we do know that a southern hemisphere team will lift the Cup for the seventh time.
Understandably, rugby people in this part of the world are concerned. An English journalist asked Wales coach Warren Gatland a pertinent question following the Dragons’ 23-19 loss to South Africa in the quarter-final on Saturday. Did Gatland believe that competitions such as Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship prepared the southern nations for a cut-throat tournament like the World Cup? Did he feel that players from this region were not only physically fitter, but mentally stronger?
To his credit, Gatland didn’t bat the question away. He would have been well within his rights to do so after a gutting defeat that signified Wales’ exit from the World Cup. Instead, he took the opportunity to confirm that the northern teams are still lagging behind their southern counterparts.
He suggested that a global season could be the answer and inferred that the current system is not working; not at club or international level.
Argentina have come a long way since their first season in the Rugby Championship. The 16-16 draw against the Boks in Mendoza in 2012 was viewed as a big step forward for Pumas rugby. They recorded their first win of the Rugby Championship when they beat Australia in 2014. They built on that victory in 2015 with a stunning 37-25 hammering of South Africa in Durban.
While they have only two wins and a draw to show for their time in the tournament, it’s clear that Argentina have ascended to a new level of competency. This was evident in their most recent clash. Argentina smashed Ireland 43-20 to qualify for the semi-finals alongside Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
England, the host nation, have come in for some fierce criticism since their group-stage exit. However, the northern hemisphere rugby fraternity as a whole should be concerned about the dire performances by the Six Nations teams at this tournament.
Not one of the Six Nations teams managed to slay a Rugby Championship opponent. England lost to Australia. Wales lost to Australia and then South Africa. Scotland lost to the Boks and then Australia. France lost to New Zealand. Ireland lost to Argentina. Italy didn’t make it out of the pool stage.
How about the scorelines? Look away if you’re a northerner.
England lost to Australia by 20 points on home soil. Wales lost by nine points against the Wallabies, even though the Aussies were reduced to 13 men at one stage. The Scots were described as brave in the wake of their 18-point loss to the Boks.
In the quarter-finals, New Zealand put nine tries past France, and Argentina ran in four against the Irish. While the Boks and Wallabies did not win by such emphatic margins, they did show their superior fitness and composure at the business end of their play-off games.
A northern hemisphere nation has qualified for six of the last seven World Cup finals. The only all-southern hemisphere decider was the 1995 clash between South Africa and New Zealand at Ellis Park.
For the first time in the tournament's history, four southern hemisphere teams have qualified for the semi-finals. And, as Gatland pointed out with some embarrassment following the recent loss to the Boks, that feat has been achieved on northern hemisphere soil.
The worst of the southern giants is still stronger than the best of the northern behemoths. This World Cup has highlighted this painful and irrefutable truth.