Rugby's hemispheric haemorrhage

As the Rugby World Cup pool stage reached the halfway point this week, not one of the Six Nations countries could yet start planning for a quarterfinal. On the form of the opening two rounds, the semifinalists will all be from the southern hemisphere: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina. That quartet has a 100% record so far, whereas the Six Nations sides have lost four of their collective 12 matches, with only Ireland and Scotland, who both have their toughest games to come, yet to taste defeat.

Various reasons have been put forward for the major European teams limping, whereas the All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies are quickstepping. “The French are old and the English are decrepit,” said the former New Zealand prop Richard Loe, totally ignoring the Celtic challenge. “Clubs in both countries have imported too many players at the expense of homegrown talent. The national sides have no one coming through in the crucial playmaking areas.”

There is also the issue of the timing of the event. It is the third successive World Cup played in the European autumn, but whereas the previous two started in October, France opted for a September kick-off so that their players were only away from their clubs for two rather than three months. The Tri-Nations tournament finished in July, the time when the four home unions and France were trying to combine conditioning work with warm-up matches.

“The southern hemisphere sides have hit the ground running,” said Wales flyhalf Stephen Jones. “They have had the advantage of coming into the tournament on the back of the Tri-Nations and are match-hardened. It is the start of the season for us, but I do not want to make any excuses. All the European teams will improve; the question is: Will we do so quickly enough?”

Assistant Wales coach Nigel Davies said he believed the timing of the 2011 tournament, which is being held in New Zealand, needed to be looked at, and former Scotland flyhalf Gregor Townsend said he did not understand why the tournament did not alternate between June and October every four years.

“Holding it in our autumn gives the southern-hemisphere teams a huge advantage,” said Townsend. “For all the benefits of doing conditioning work and changes in the players’ body shape, there is no substitute for playing rugby. It is the battle-hardened teams that are performing much more fluently as a result.

“When the level of competition during the summer months is Super 14 or Tri-Nations, you have the ideal preparation for an intense month of Test rugby. This makes England’s triumph in 2003 all the more special, but the timing of the tournament can only go a little way to explaining the gulf between the two hemispheres. Rugby is all about making right decisions at the right times and the players in the north haven’t been doing that nearly enough.”

The Newcastle and former Lions conditioning coach, Steve Black, says that from a purely physical perspective, November would be the ideal month for the tournament to start for European teams. “Players are creatures of habit,” he said. “They are used to feeling their way into campaigns after pre-season work and I think that the timing of the tournament is one reason why teams from the north and the south have started it so markedly differently.

“There is also another factor. European rugby seems obsessed with players becoming bigger and stronger. That is fine if you want to compete, but if you want to win, the key is producing good rugby players. There needs to be a paradigm shift here. We seem to be weighed down by the fear of failure. You have to take risks to succeed. We have to look at ourselves: the Guinness Premiership is a very tough league, but it does not produce fast rugby.

“I do not think there is a difference between the hemispheres in terms of talent. We simply have to make our players believe in themselves, enjoy their rugby and be confident in what they are doing. I am going to see Graham Henry [the New Zealand coach who hired Black when he was in charge of Wales in the late 1990s] in Scotland this week and I know what I will find—a group at ease with itself.”

Wasps director of rugby and former Lions coach Ian McGeechan believes the timing has had a clear impact on European performances. “The Tri-Nations had a rest period after a meaningful competition, while the four home unions and France went into the cup not having played a competitive match since May,” he said.

“The timing of this World Cup is unfortunate. That said, it is not an excuse for some poor performances . You have to be able to adapt. Another factor is the experience of European rugby the New Zealand management team have, along with most of the Australia coaches and South Africa’s Eddie Jones.

“They had taken the best pieces of our game, such as the set-pieces and breakdowns, and added it to their own. The September start made it more difficult for the European teams, but they should be doing better than they are.”—Â

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