South still reigns supreme
18 Jun 2012
JON CARDINELLI says there can be no argument that the southern hemisphere Test teams remain superior to their northern counterparts. The debate is rather about whether the north is actually closing the gap.
In two weeks, the southern nations have swept aside all but one of the northern challengers. Scotland beat Australia in a one-off game to provide the north with a small consolation in this Test window.
For England, Ireland and Wales, the journey to the south has produced the same dire results.
There are those who will point to the Test in Newcastle as an abomination, who will say that the Aussies were at a disadvantage at having to play a midweek Test just four days before the start of a three-game series against Wales, the champions of the north.
It’s a fair point, but the result will be recorded, just as the results against England, Ireland and Wales will stand no matter how many northern pressmen complain of referee bias and ‘illegal’ southern tactics.
Each of the big three tours have been decided in just two Tests. This past weekend, New Zealand took an unassailable 2-0 lead when they pipped Ireland in Christchurch. Australia won their series against Wales when they beat the Dragons in Melbourne. The Springboks won their second match in as many weeks to dispose of England.
There were moments when the northern teams were competitive, but the fact of the matter is that they were not competitive enough to win even one of the first two Tests and make a fist of the series.
There is always denial when northern teams lose to their southern counterparts, but sooner or later the powers that be are going to have to admit that England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are simply not good enough to win these games consistently. Their failure to admit it is preventing them from moving forward, and world rugby is poorer as a result.
The problem is mental as well as physical. The northerners boast a reputation for physicality and set-piece strength, which is why they have been able to upset Australia more often than New Zealand or South Africa in recent years. But in tight contests, they are too often on the losing end.
Wales are a prime example. The last four clashes between the Dragons and the Boks have seen the latter winning by five points or less. That may seem like an encouraging sign for those who believe a close scoreline reflects some sort of equality, but that Wales can’t win these games speaks volumes for their poor composure.
Wales had their chances to win in Melbourne, as did Ireland in Christchurch. Both had played themselves into a position to win their respective games, and were helped in no small way by the opposition.
Cooper Vuna was yellow carded in the second half of that Melbourne encounter, but Wales failed to make the Aussies pay. Similarly, Israel Dagg was sin-binned in Christchurch and Ireland did not use the one-man advantage to finish the All Blacks off.
Wales and Ireland will be gutted with those defeats. It must be discouraging to know they gave absolutely everything and still came short. Could they have done better? No. Could Australia and New Zealand have done better? Undoubtedly.
The same could be said for Stuart Lancaster’s England. They came to South Africa with an inexperienced group of players and exceeded expectations, yet they weren’t good enough to complete a comeback in Johannesburg.
There is an opportunity for England, Ireland and Wales to strike back this Saturday, but the coming round of games will not mean anything in the context of the old north-south debate.
With all three series already decided, the three coaches of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa will be looking to manage tired and injured players. It may leave them more vulnerable to a northern assault but a win for Wales, Ireland or England in the last game of their respective series would be a hollow one.
What the past two weeks have shown is that while the northern teams have improved in some areas, they still haven’t made up enough ground to beat their southern counterparts on a consistent basis.
For now, and it would seem a long time yet, the south will reign supreme.