Rugby: Gulf between hemispheres yawns wide

Prior to the inaugural 1987 World Cup, European nations crossed the equator in the infrequent expeditions of the amateur rugby union era with understandable trepidation.

Aside from a handful of celebrated exceptions, notably France’s famous 1958 series win over South Africa, the Southern Hemisphere citadels usually repelled all invaders with ease.

Fast forward to 2010 and, after six World Cups and the advent of professional union, the only difference appears to be the sheer number of modern internationals.

Each of the Six Nations championship contenders will be in action in the Southern Hemisphere this month in a frenetic series of internationals.

But, with the possible exception of grand slam champions France, they will have travelled much as they did during most of the 20th century with hopes higher than expectations.

World champions South Africa, who have won the ultimate tournament twice in four appearances, set out their stall last weekend when a team with probably four first-choice players at most defeated Wales 34-31 in Cardiff.

The Springboks beat the British and Irish Lions last year, they are the current Tri-Nations champions and the Bulls defeated the Stormers in an all-South Africa Super 14 provincial final.

South Africa will play Six Nations champions France in a one-off Test on Saturday between possibly the two major contenders at next year’s World Cup in New Zealand.

Dismal record
France, as they were in 1987 when they lost the World Cup final to New Zealand in Auckland, are the standard bearers for European rugby. But they are missing key players through injury and coach Marc Lievremont has made it consistently clear that all his efforts are concentrated on winning the World Cup for the first time.

Since England became the first, and to date, only European country to win the World Cup in 2003, the four home nations have lost all 25 away matches against Tri-Nations opposition.

England, who face a two-Test series against the Wallabies, have gone backwards since 2003 and they were lucky to escape with a 28-28 draw against the Australian Barbarians on Tuesday.

Ireland, who have never beaten New Zealand, and Wales, who have never defeated them away, play one and two Tests respectively against the All Blacks.

The Irish faltered this year after winning the 2009 grand slam and they will take the field without the Lions captain Paul O’Connell. Wales, as they showed against South Africa, often look like world beaters for an hour before fading in the final quarter.

Scotland, with two Tests in Argentina, have on paper the easiest task. Argentina, though, has always been a difficult tour for any side, the Pumas possess a redoubtable pack and the Scots have beaten them only twice in 10 Tests.

The World Cup has changed the face of rugby with every Test, tour and championship now viewed in the context of the four-yearly tournament. What has not changed is the gulf between the hemispheres. – Reuters

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