The Six Nations begin to resemble Wile E. Coyote with their collective failures at the Rugby World Cup.
Just as the Looney Tunes character was foiled at every turn by the speedy Road Runner, so it has proved with the repetitive attempts of Europe’s top teams to rein in the southern hemisphere powers at the game’s biggest tournament.
The notable exception was England’s success in 2003, though even this required arguably the greatest national team ever to emerge from the northern hemisphere to go to extra time in the final. That comment is not intended to detract from the heroics of Martin Johnson’s men, but merely to demonstrated just how difficult the task appears to be for European teams.
Victories over Rugby Championship opponents in friendly matches are becoming more and more common for the Six Nations sides as these have increased substantially in the professional era. Just last Autumn the northern hemisphere won eight such encounters, among them Ireland’s second victory over New Zealand in the past few years.
In 2017 the figure was six, and the year before that nine. Even Italy got in on the act, stunning South Africa 20-18 in Florence. The Six Nations teams have also tasted victory on tour. They had a collective five wins in the southern hemisphere last year, while Wales also beat the Springboks in the US capital.
Little wonder, therefore, that the claims of a closing gap between the hemispheres have been coming thick and fast in recent times, and that teams from the north are invariably atop the rankings at the commencement of rugby’s quadrennial world championship. But somehow this never translates into success when it matters most – 2003 notwithstanding.
Not that they haven’t had their share of victories in the tournament. England’s win over defending champions New Zealand in this year’s semi-finals was one for the ages. They had already demolished Australia in the quarters; a team Wales had also edged out in pool play. This only served to give false hope, however, as once again the northern hemisphere teams were left clutching at thin air.
England have now played in four finals for just one win, France have lost all three finals they’ve played in, Wales haven’t got past the semi-finals after three attempts, Ireland still haven’t progressed beyond the quarters, and Italy have never reached the play-offs.
The big question is why? England and France have more “total players” than any of the southern hemisphere nations, according to World Rugby statistics, while figures for the Celtic nations compare to New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, with Italy not far behind. From what I can gather on national rugby websites, England also have the biggest operating budget, followed by New Zealand, Wales, France, Ireland, South Africa, Scotland and Australia, respectively.
Seven of the nine World Cups have produced a North-South final and on six of those occasions, the latter has prevailed. The Europeans seem capable of beating their southern rivals at other stages of the tournament but, with one down-to-the-wire exception, not in the final.
Perhaps it comes down to smarts. Nobody knows rugby like the Kiwis and South Africans, which is why those two nationalities have dominated the game for over a century. But let’s not forget the Wallabies. Rugby is by no means the main sport in Australia and is fairly minor in much of the country. The green and golds were not even considered a major force in the game until the 1980s. Yet they have claimed two titles.
Could it be that the home unions, France and Italy are themselves handicapped by the same exclusivity which has often been cited as an impediment to the game’s international development? The Six Nations may be stronger than the European Nations Championship (ENC), but it is surely not at the same level as the Rugby Championship.
So while England and France are playing in the same annual competition as the Celtic nations and Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina are locking horns in what, with all due respect, could just about be described as a “mini-World Championship.” It also involves two rounds most years, with the All Blacks and Wallabies meeting a third time for the Bledisloe Cup.
Might this be the key to southern hemisphere supremacy and the extra steel they seem to bring to the World Cup final? If so, the Six Nations might want to rethink their opposition to change, such as the proposed World League concept. That is, presuming they don’t want to go on falling off cliffs at the end of every World Cup tournament.
North vs South World Cup Table after nine Tournaments
|Team||New Zealand (23-3)||South Africa (11-1)||Australia (14-8)||Argentina (8-9)|