Two years ago we witnessed a peculiar sense of pride flare up along equatorial lines. The four semifinal slots at the World Cup were occupied by southern hemisphere nations. The Rugby Championship rivals revelled in the achievement, embracing it as confirmation that once and for all their brand of rugga had reached a pinnacle out of reach for their European counterparts.
Fast forward to the present: things are murky. Spearheaded by record-tying England and flanked by record-enders Ireland, the North believes it is making a legitimate challenge to this unwelcome hegemony. The world rankings reflect the effort: both teams sit pretty in the top four, with the Red and Whites breathing down New Zealand necks for top spot.
Whether you put stock in the ratings or not, there’s no denying that the Springboks deserved to be deposed from the upper echelons.
Europe hopes the gap, which had threatened to turn into a chasm, has been closed. A test of their ambition will be the international tours when they play host to the South’s best over the next month. But will it stand as a watermark for their progress?
Eddie Jones’s side has been the best in the world over the past year and they will be confident of reaffirming that tag. The Six Nations champions host Argentina on Saturday before welcoming Australia and Samoa in the coming weeks.
The Springboks’ past year didn’t help to quash talk of Northern rebellion. The men in green served up their worst season in more than 10 years, culminating in a truly horrid November tour. Although the optimists would forgive being outplayed by Wales and England, even they can’t explain how the team conspired to lose to Italy. The coming weeks offer redemption and a chance to steady the 2019-bound ship.
Coach Allister Coetzee is confident that the Boks have what it takes to overcome Ireland on Saturday — with the caveat that they also have the burden of having to evolve with Euro-style refereeing in mind.
“Of course, we’re also up against northern hemisphere referees, and their interpretation of the breakdowns especially is somewhat different,” he said. “We have adapted well to their officiating though.”
Coetzee has been maligned by some for what’s seen as a reluctance to experiment with a big pool of talent. He, however, values consistency and is delighted to have taken a familiar squad to Dublin.
“They all understand the team culture, the philosophy and know the environment, so in that regard the continuity is a big plus for us. It’s the first time we have been able to have so much continuity, and it’s excellent for us when compared to last year when several new players came into the squad.”
The referees are not the only thing Coetzee will have to prepare for. The Boks will line up against a dangerous half-back pairing in Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton. The latter in particular is likely to reinforce the stereotype of a northern hemisphere aerial game and kick regularly from deep. How the Boks’ backs respond could be key to the game’s outcome.
France, their second tour opponents, are embroiled in their own crisis. The beleaguered outfit will take to the field against the All Blacks, another team that has had its fair share of question marks raised over it.
Mixed displays from the world champs coincide with the emergence of the North as a competitive force. Arguably, they were fortunate to escape with a series draw when the British and Irish Lions toured in July and put in a few average displays on their nonetheless inevitable cruise to the Rugby Championship. Last week’s laboured win against the Barbarians did little to dispel doubt. Although, in the context of the North-South debate, it must be noted that the Baa-Baas named a solitary European player — Italian flanker Simone Favaro — and that much of the threat came from Crusader fly-half Richie Mo’unga.
Whatever noise the pundits may make, the Kiwis continue to deliver results when called upon. Steve Hansen has proven that he has the backbone to experiment in this time of transition and that has, at times, disrupted the team’s rhythm. But at its core this is a team that will give any team in either hemisphere a tough time. The frontline remains devastating — Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick in particular are still the best lock pairing in the world.
The backline can be filled with players that ooze class. The issue is that too often they have been off form or haven’t clicked. Beauden Barrett is an example of a world-class individual not delivering the goods often enough. Rugby’s 2016 world player of the year was embarrassingly outmanoeuvred by Mo’unga last weekend, to such an extent that Hansen shifted him to fullback.
The fact that Dan Carter’s successor at the Crusaders is yet to earn a Kiwi cap shows their glut of options. He is expected to offer only temporary cover for those in front of the pecking order — Barrett, Lima Sopoaga and Damian McKenzie.
But Hansen’s failure to solidify a dominant combination will not stop us from delving into cliché: form is temporary, class is permanent.
The All Blacks will be desperate to prove that adage, along with the other giants of the South. Rugby’s supreme event may be two years away, but this month should offer us a momentary insight into the fleeting power dynamics of the sport.