South reigns supreme

The northern nations’ record of one win in 20 Tests speaks volumes for the southern hemisphere’s dominance in 2008.

Wales edged Australia 21-18 last Saturday to prevent a complete southern whitewash, but one wonders why exactly the men north of the equator consider this a massive achievement. The Sanzar teams have dropped one Test in 20, and the optimistic among the northern fans can forget about viewing Wales’ win as the turning of the tide. South Africa, New Zealand and Australia are only going to get better in 2009, and as is the persisting trend, the home nations, France and Italy are going to battle to keep up.

The world champions came into the 2008 Test season with high expectations and had targeted a title win in the Tri-Nations as a measure of success. Peter de Villiers’s charges failed in this regard, but outside of this competition they’ve beaten all comers with a six from six record against northern teams. They underperformed in the second and third Tests against Wales and then again when playing Scotland, but on all three occasions a Bok side in second gear ultimately proved better than a Welsh or Scottish side at full tilt.

New Zealand and Australia began the year having lost a number of senior players, and both Graham Henry and Robbie Deans conceded this would not be their best season. Six months on, and New Zealand have won the Tri-Nations and their second Grand Slam in three years while Australia have shown some encouraging signs under the tutelage of ex-Crusaders mentor Robbie Deans. The Boks missed an opportunity to expose the Australasian vulnerabilities in the Tri-Nations and both Antipodean outfits will be tougher to beat in 2009. For the northern sides, an upset against southern opposition in 2009 seems improbable.

There are a number of reasons for the south’s dominance. Several critics have pointed to the Super 14 as a superior competition to the tournaments up north. The European clubs are also saturated with South African and Australasian players unwanted by their own Test teams, which in turn affects local player development. Post-World Cup, the ELVs were embraced by the Sanzar nations in the Super 14 and Tri-Nations tournaments, meaning the south had a seven-month headstart before the laws were implemented in Europe.

It was clear on the November tours that the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks had the better handle on the ELVs, especially at the tackle point. The extra space behind the scrum was also better utilised by the southern teams and there were far fewer errors when it came to tactical kicking. The last aspect has become the most prominent feature under the ELVs, and it seems the north are only starting to realise that now.

The 2009 Super 14 will employ the same ELVs used in the 2008 competition which will require a shift in mindset for the South African and Australasian players. The Boks will revert to the global ELVs when they host the British & Irish Lions in June, and this could be another disruption. The Lions are expected to provide a greater challenge than the four individual nations that battled the southern teams in November, and with their players boasting a full season of global-ELV governed rugby, they will have come to grips with the laws before the tour.

However, while it wasn’t the Boks’ best showing on tour, they definitely turned a corner in embracing a more sensible and measured approach. The northern teams’ overall record against the south has been poor in recent times, and it hardly surprised when the two previous Lions tours resulted in deserved wins for Australia (2001) and New Zealand (2005). The north may improve before next June, but so will the Boks. If the Lions fail to repeat their 1997 success in South Africa it will underline the ever-expanding gap between rugby’s two hemispheres.

By Jon Cardinelli