Comment: Why southern superiority remains a Rugby reality

28 February 2013

The year of a Lions tour inevitably turns rugby’s attention towards the debate which reigns supreme in almost every sport: which region is ‘better’ than another? While undoubtedly a gross and overused simplification, our prejudices and judgements are often reduced to these apparently incontrovertible terms. And so, as potential British and Irish Lions wrestle for seats on this summer’s plane to Australia, we are once more drawn towards comparison of the relative merits of Northern and Southern hemisphere rugby.

Unfortunately, given that their respective seasons take place at different times of the year, clashes on the international stage are often fraught with tired legs and minds – an excuse often promoted during the summer tours of the home nations, but conveniently forgotten when the big boys come to town in October and November. With a parallel to football’s Club World Cup nothing but a pipe dream, the contrast of the fundamental aspects of each region’s styles of play is seen most clearly in the Six Nations and Super Rugby. In a simple comparison of the two, one can extrapolate towards conclusions which support the current balance of power in the international game.

Watching a game of Super Rugby, one can see two teams with a relentless commitment to pace and width on the ball. This was typified by the Chiefs’ breathless encounter with the Highlanders last Friday morning, in which a turnover ball was fizzed from one side to the other in a series of arcing passes. Even the South African game, predicated on a stereotypical European control of the set-piece and territorial dominance through tactical kicking, is so successful because of the speed at which the game is played.

Looking only at the current year’s Six Nations championship, the focus of European rugby would appear, by contrast, to be despairingly limited for the most part to the ten yards either side of each ruck or set-piece. The failure, to this point, of lauded Canterbury coach Rob Penney to implement these ideals among his Munster charges certainly lends itself to this point of view. However, were Ireland and France to play with the same pace and ambition as Leinster or Clermont Auvergne do in the Heineken Cup, a much more exciting competition would be in store. These two sides, which are streets ahead of any other team in Europe when at full strength and in full flow, could match the southern hemisphere giants blow for blow. All we can hope for is that, soon enough, the coaches of perennial underachievers Ireland and France will see this too.

Ben Wylie

Photo Credit: Petereduk