The Rugby Hemisphere Divide: South vs North

Date published: October 28 2016

Right now, international rugby is experiencing more of a gulf in class than ever before. The southern hemisphere has always been home to some of the best teams in the world. It is home to the best domestic championship in Super Rugby and to the likes of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

During the last World Cup it looked like the balance would be leveled somewhat. Ireland, Wales, England and France were all playing well going into the tournament and the fact that the tournament was held in England should have made life difficult for the southern hemisphere teams. But that was definitely not the case, and by the time we reached the semi-final, there were no northern hemisphere teams left in it.

England have clawed some respect back and they are now second in the world rankings, behind New Zealand. But many of the points that have earned them that place have come from defeating fellow northern teams.

Whatever way you look at it, the southern hemisphere are miles ahead. But why is this? It’s fairly clear why Super Rugby is ahead of the European competitions. This is where many of the All Black, Springmok and Wallaby players ply their trade after all. But why do New Zealand, Australia and South Africa have such an edge on the international stage?

Learning from the Competition

The problem with international rugby is that the two hemispheres do not collide enough. They play during the World Cup, but besides a few friendlies and tours, that’s it. The southern hemisphere have the Rugby Championship and the northern hemisphere have the Six Nations. These tournaments are played every year and that, as well as the additional friendlies, means that teams in each hemisphere are able to gain experience from playing each other.

Argentina are a prime example of this. As little as ten years ago they didn’t have a very strong side. but then they were welcomed into the Rugby Championship and before they knew it they were playing against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa several times a year. They learned their game from these teams and they adapted their style to suit. If they had played in the Six Nations, they probably would have ended up playing a different game.

In fact, Italy did just that. When they were introduced they were a bare bones team just waiting to be molded. But because they were playing against the likes of England, France and Ireland instead of New Zealand, they adopted a kick-first approach.

And don’t pay too much attention to the Autumn Internationals. If anything, this blurs the distances between the two hemispheres. By the time these exhibition games roll around, everyone is too fatigued to give it their all. The northern teams, if anything, are a little fresher, which means they tend to look better than they actually are.

The Weather

The weather has a big impact on the style of rugby that is played, which has a knock-on effect that is felt throughout. In the south they value players with speed, players who can feint, dodge and offload. In the north, they value bigger, stronger players. If you have ever played rugby in the rain, you’ll know how much the game can change.

It stops being about offloads and speed and it starts being about pick-and-drives, about simple catch-and-run and about kicks. In the northern hemisphere, it seems that it’s either raining or it has rained. In either case, the ball is slippery, there are more knock-ons, less offloads and more scrums. This all means that games in the north are slower, stronger and more reliant on territory.

The Change

So, what can the north do to close to gap?

Well, there is nothing they can do about the weather. But there is something they can do about the players. In the north, they just don’t value the speedsters enough. A player like Ben Smith wouldn’t have quite the same effect in the north because he wouldn’t be given quite the same chances. 

These players exist in the north and they need to be given more chances. The World Cup is played in the summer, so the northern teams need to be prepared to step up and play the All Blacks at their own game. They need to be capable of changing styles. They need more versatility. And to get there, they need to ensure that the players with the skill, speed and vision get more chances.

The tempo needs to increase and they need to kick less. 

Of course, all of that is easier said than done. The truth is, this divide will probably remain for many more years.

Guest post from