Poles apart

JON CARDINELLI, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says while the Test nations up north are coming to terms with the new law interpretations, the club structures and mentality will forever contrast the philosophy down south.

Fancy a challenge? Find an Englishman who covets the glamorous Super Rugby competition over the gritty European Cup. Try telling a Frenchman there’s more passion in the NPC than in the Top 14. And prepare to be klapped if you tell a South African the Celtic League is more intense than the Currie Cup.

Passion underscores the support of franchise, provincial and club rugby the world over. Because there’s no crossover tournament where the best teams are measured, we’re faced with a situation where each hemisphere believes it’s streets ahead of the other.

At international level, there’s a clear frontrunner. Not only have the southern superpowers won the World Cup five out of a possible six times, but their record between global tournaments speaks for itself. As a collective, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have enjoyed an 86% win ratio over the Six Nations teams (including the British & Irish Lions) since November 2007.

But at club level, how do you pit a competition like Super Rugby against the European Cup? There are no crossover games and thus no related statistics upon which to gauge a response. You’ll find the never-ending stream of hypothetical talk is rooted in parochialism, as even the most objective of observers, including respected commentators and former players, lobby for their own regions as the world’s best.

In search of an informed and fair viewpoint, SA Rugby magazine has canvassed the opinion of players and coaches with experience in both hemispheres. There are a number of reasons why the debate is futile, given the differences in conditions, mentality, standard of professionalism and structure. And yet, there’s a growing need to set the record straight; the need for a future competition that could eventually displace one-sided Tests and recapture the imagination of the global community.

So why can’t you theoretically compare the two regions in determining the superior sector? For starters, the conditions prescribe the respective styles of play. The north is typically wet and soft underfoot from October to March. There may be some running rugby played in the months preceding and following this period, but tactics are largely tailored to the conditions. Super Rugby is completed before the onset of the southern winter and so clear conditions and hard surfaces are enjoyed.

There’s something more, however, that prevents the northern clubs from embracing a free-flowing game. In Europe tradition may be viewed as a virtue, but in many ways it’s inhibiting the development of the northern game, as Eddie Jones, a former Saracens director of rugby, suggests.

‘In explaining the attitude, I like to draw a parallel with cricket,’ he says. ‘If you compare the England cricket side to teams like Australia and South Africa, England have always been more conservative whereas Australia and South Africa tend to be more attacking. Society does play a role in the brand of sport played in a particular country, and rugby is no exception.’

Springbok assistant coach Gary Gold has coached at London Irish, and is well-placed to comment on the northern philosophy. Gold points to the promotion-relegation nature of European rugby as a reason for why some clubs shun a more attacking, and ultimately riskier, approach.

‘The mentality is not to lose, and there’s a massive emphasis on defence,’ Gold says. ‘There’s a belief that if you can form a rock-solid defence, you can eventually use that to squeeze teams, force turnovers, and score points to win games. The message you’re sending to opposition teams is, “Have a go, but we will turn you over”.

‘There are exceptions, though. Saracens have changed dramatically over the past couple of seasons. They used to be very conservative, but they’ve become more attacking recently. Most of the English clubs haven’t caught up yet. Munster also have a reputation as a side that can attack, and come to think of it, a lot of the recent European Cup winners have won playing attacking rugby.’

While the Currie Cup may employ its own version of the promotion-relegation format, Super Rugby teams operate without fear of top-flight banishment. This may change in years to come, as Saru looks to accommodate a sixth South African franchise if there’s no further expansion. If the Kings are promoted at the expense of South Africa’s worst-placed team, it could impact negatively on how our franchises approach the game.

Jones agrees that most northern teams are inhibited by relegation prospects, and believes that their conservative mindset is a stumbling block when it comes to adapting to new trends. The current law interpretations encourage quick ball and free-flowing rugby, and while a Test side like England have at times played with inspiration and purpose, it’ll be a while before the entire region joins the revolution.

‘If we stick with these laws, teams like England and France will catch up,’ says Jones. ‘They have the volume of players to make a good fist of it, and in two to three years’ time, they will be an attacking threat. The laws will force them to be more attacking, which will in turn filter down into their club system.’

Schalk Brits, a former Springbok hooker currently playing for Saracens, says we shouldn’t expect the northern teams to abandon the traditional ways just yet. European rugby is acknowledged for its forward-oriented, no-nonsense style, and the fact that it’s an environment conducive to the front-row fracas attracts tight-five players from around the globe.

‘Some people have asked me if I’ve lost my spark and why I’m not as flashy as I used to be,’ says Brits. ‘The truth is the conditions and tactics make it impossible at times. You come up here to learn your scrumming, but it’s almost a different game. In Super Rugby, the ref won’t let a scrum last that long, but in the north, you see refs allowing a dominant team to scrum the opposition from one side of the park to the other.’

Brits’ comments reveal how the philosophy is embraced by all parts of the northern rugby community, be it the players, coaches or even the referees. The set phase is viewed as the be-all and end-all, rather than the launching pad it is down south.

Ross Skeate, who enjoyed an 18-month stint at Top 14 side Toulon before signing with the Sharks in mid-2010, believes the northern culture is immensely different to the one experienced in the Sanzar nations. Trench warfare is celebrated by the close-knit communities in France. The linebreaks and offloads typical of Super Rugby don’t bring the locals in as much as the prospect of a slow, grinding battle between two hardened packs.

‘The set phase is everything, and refs seem to base their interpretations on that. There’s not much encouragement of an expansive game. That’s why the image of French flair can be a bit misleading,’ says Skeate.

The standard of refereeing in France is abysmal compared to that of the UK and Ireland. It can adversely affect the flow, and since there are no professional officials in France, the term ‘adapting to the referee’ takes on new meaning.

‘I know they love to moan about refs down south, but they have it lucky,’ says Brits. ‘It can be very difficult when you play a French club in France and the crowd is baying for your blood. There’s an even greater focus on the scrum and the breakdown in a tournament like the European Cup. Those are two grey areas at the best of times, but when there are more set pieces and rucks and the officiating isn’t great, the game obviously isn’t the same.’

There are, however, areas where the south just can’t compete with the north.

‘Technically, you can’t compare rugby in the two hemispheres,’ says Gold. ‘Because of the level of professionalism in other European sporting codes like soccer and rugby league, the systems and techniques are already available for rugby union to utilise.

‘The personnel and coaches from league can also apply their minds to union, as there are so many similarities. Organisations like the [English] RFU feed the clubs all the new interventions and a host of specialist coaches are at the clubs’ disposal, from lineout throwing consultants to kicking coaches.’

It would be unfair to interpret this as a shortcoming, as results will indicate that the southern Test nations are performing for all their perceived lack of structure and support. Similarly, it’s hard to say the northern clubs are wrong for sticking with the traditional ways if it still brings them success within their own club competitions.

What we are interested in knowing is which region is stronger domestically. Unless there’s a move to stage a spectacle like the Bulls vs Toulouse, the reigning Super Rugby and European Cup champions, or even an extended world club tournament featuring four of the best from each region, we’ll simply never know.

‘There’s strong support for the way the game is played in the south and strong support for the way the game is played in the north,’ says Jones. ‘Nobody wants to play out of season, and I don’t think a global season will ever come about.

‘As far as club rugby is concerned, we should take a cue from soccer and get the champions from each tournament together. It may not offer conclusive proof about which hemisphere is best, but to see a team like Toulouse tackling the Bulls would be an awesome spectacle.

‘That is where we are headed as the game becomes more professional. The top nations want to play more Tests, but eventually the powers that be will realise there’s far more value in a game featuring the Bulls and Toulouse than a country ranked No 3 and
one ranked No 14.’

– This article first appeared in the March issue of SA Rugby magazine. The April issue will be on sale from 16 March.
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