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Let’s forget the French for the moment – and for that matter, Italy too. The current resurgence enjoyed by the Northern Hemisphere is very clearly concentrated in the Home Unions of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand fired the first warning shot, and the end-of-year internationals have confirmed it.
That recent improvement in rugby fortunes is reflected in a table of the autumn results between the Home Unions and Rugby Championship nations.
|Nation||New Zealand||Australia||South Africa||Argentina|
That’s six wins for the North and only three for the South – and two of those were by world champions New Zealand.
What is even more surprising is the try tally from the touring season, which worked out at 30 for the North and 23 for the South.
In previous years, whatever the balance of results, the South could always be expected to score more tries than their opponents, who have traditionally relied on heavier forward power, defence and goal-kicking to win inter-Hemisphere contests.
Now that narrative looks to be changing. In two of the three most significant games from the November series, the highest-ranked home sides, England and Ireland, beat Australia and South Africa respectively (who finished second and third in the Rugby Championship) by scoring four tries to nil.
In the most spectacular upset, Scotland then scored eight against a Wallabies team depleted by the sending-off of Sekope Kepu at the end of the opening period.
None of these events would have happened, or even threatened to happen, in previous seasons.
One of the principal motivators in this shift is the greater depth of quality now available within the domestic game in the Northern Hemisphere, and that depth has been built by changes off the field.
It was that depth which meant Scotland were able to overcome the loss of both their best attacking player (Stuart Hogg) in the pre-game warm-up, and the absence of seven other potential starting choices – WP Nel and Allan Dell at prop, Fraser Brown at hooker, Jonny Gray’s big brother, Richie, in the second row, John Hardie at number seven, centre Alex Dunbar and scrum-half Greig Laidlaw – and still rack up over 50 points.
In Wales, the availability of national dual contracts, or NDCs, is attracting more and more proven international players back to the domestic game. The NDC is structured so the unions pay 60 per cent of the contracted player’s salary and therefore retains primacy of contract over the region, which pays the remaining 40 per cent.
This means NDC players are available for training camps and matches which occur outside World Rugby’s allocated windows. Lions winger George North will return to Wales for the 2018-19 season from Northampton after a four-year sojourn in the English Premiership, and back-rower Ross Moriarty will make a similar move from Gloucester back to the Dragons at the same time, bringing the total of NDC players in the Welsh game up to 19.
The trafficking of Welsh players to the English and French leagues has largely reversed as a result, with Rhys Webb’s recent move to Toulon the only example of a high-profile Wales player going in the opposite direction.
The number of non-Wales qualified players in each regional squad is restricted to six, in addition to two ‘project players’ who can potentially qualify for the national team via residency.
It was this greater concentration of talent which helped Wales tip up a Rugby Championship-strength Springbok side 24-22 on Saturday.
Wales were missing most of their Lions from the summer, including Jonathan Davies, George North and Liam Williams in the backs and Sam Warburton, Ken Owens and Justin Tipuric up front, plus other experienced international forwards like Samson Lee, Tomas Francis, Jake Ball and Luke Charteris. They still come away with a tidy victory.
To repeat, this would not have happened in previous seasons.
Even in England, the domain of private ownership, the heavy financial incentivising of EQPs (English-qualified players) is leading to a production line of new home-grown talent. For example, a Premiership club can attract up to £800,000 in ‘academy credits’ for young players from the RFU and that is beginning to push foreign imports (at least the ones who aren’t stars) out of the depth chart.
Look at the fate of Australian players down in Exeter. There are six Australians with Super Rugby experience or better at Sandy Lane – Greg Holmes, Ollie Atkins, Dave Dennis, Julian Salvi, Nic White and Lachie Turner. Only two of those (White and Salvi) could now be considered first choices with everyone fit and available on the Chiefs’ roster.
The other aspect of Northern Hemisphere improvement is on the field, where the rate of development in the attacking game has been given a large shove in the back by the new trial laws. The new breakdown rules have produced a faster ball-in-play tempo and a higher proportion of uncontested, or low-contest, breakdowns. This goes a long way to explaining the greater ‘trending’ emphasis on attack and scoring tries.
The key changes are twofold:
Since the beginning of the 2017-2018 season in the Northern Hemisphere, these rule changes have tended to dissuade defensive sides from competing at the breakdown unless there is an obvious opportunity to win the ball.
On Saturday in Cardiff, South Africa often committed two or more players to defensive breakdowns as they would have done under the old laws, particularly when Malcolm Marx was involved. They got some pay from it because Marx is such an outstanding operator on the ground, but the Welsh attitude to the breakdown was a noticeable contrast and very much ahead of the game.
All the Welsh tacklers in these examples stood upright and tried to stay on their feet, and in the game, longer than the South African cleanout players. It was a principle they employed throughout the game.
Both the Wales hooker Kristian Dacey or second rower Cory Hill could have mounted a contest over the ball, as fullback Andries Coetzee is momentarily isolated when he takes the ball into contact, but instead they pull out into defence, leaving two Springbok bodies out of play on the deck.
Had the situation been reversed, one or both South African defenders would undoubtedly have taken the other option.
The surplus of Welsh players on their feet meant South Africa only rarely threatened to penetrate the defensive screen.
With number three Scott Andrews getting back to his feet just as Coetzee plays the ball at the base, Wales are winning the ‘players out of the game’ battle 4-1 and are able to cover both the pick and go and the acting scrum-half, forcing a turnover of possession due to obstruction.
The extra players on their feet also enabled Wales to rush from a strong base at some critical moments:
In the first frame, South Africa are camped only a couple of metres away from the Welsh goal-line, but all the Welsh defenders are on their feet with three Springboks on the ground. Despite the field position, this means that they can rush hard on the next phase, with Scott Williams getting into the lane between the passer (Pieter-Steph du Toit) and the receiver (Eben Etzebeth) to make the intercept.
The second example occurred moments after South Africa had poured people into a counter-ruck to win back possession, and the sequence can be seen in real time here (31st-32nd minutes)
South Africa’s emphasis on the breakdown wins the ball back for them, but symbolically it doesn’t slow down the rush on next phase, with Dan Biggar fully 14 metres past the base of the ruck as he blocks down Coetzee’s attempted clearance! As in the shot at 19:26, Wales have an extra defender in the right area at the right moment when Biggar blocks the kick to set up another the third try for Hadleigh Parkes.
South Africa eventually lost the game through their unfamiliarity with the new breakdown rules. Du Toit attempts to get up and play at the ball without retiring back through the gate, and Leigh Halfpenny stepped up to kick the match-winning penalty:
It was an unhappy day for the South African back three in general, and the lack of connection between full-back Coetzee and a new cap on the left wing in Warrick Gelant cost the Bokke two early tries.
In the 4th minute, a crosskick from scrum by Biggar caught Gelant defending up with his midfield and Coetzee failing to cover the wide zone outside him:
Three minutes later, Coetzee is defending much wider from the lineout, and turned out in expectation of the cross-kick, but Gelant has failed to move across to fill in at fullback:
These were two poor tries to concede from a defensive viewpoint, and they may well have sounded the death-knell on Allister Coetzee’s career as Springboks coach.
The big surprise in the key end-of-year tour games was the try differential between the Northern teams and those from the South.
England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are learning to continue playing positive rugby in the absence of their key players and all of the home unions have greater strength in depth than before, due to policies which encourage both their best players to remain at home and the development of a youthful new generation underneath them.
The new trial laws at the breakdown have also stimulated an existing momentum towards attack yet further. Defences now tend to focus on line-speed and numbers in the line rather than committing extra bodies at the tackle point.
The fact South Africa did not fully recognise the importance of these changes before their final tour match at Cardiff, and the complete absence of backfield organisation for the first two Welsh tries, does not reflect well on their coaching team.
On this evidence, it will take a Christmas miracle for Allister Coetzee’s international coaching career to be extended into the New Year.