A touchy topic at the best of times, but one that falls on particularly sore ears this week following England’s step backwards against the All Blacks and the never-ending story that is Wales’ run of close defeats to Australia. It’s not all doom and gloom though. There’s evidence that Scotland are a resurgent side under new Head Coach Vern Cotter. Their 41-31 victory over Argentina was more comfortable than the scoreline reflected and surprisingly more flamboyant a display than we’re used to seeing from the Scots. Across the Irish Sea, Paul O’Connell’s men were giving the South Africans a brutal lesson in disruptive, rowdy rugby. For once, Heyneke Meyer’s side couldn’t live with the opposition’s physicality. As such, Ireland notched up a famous win.
Hmmm. ‘Famous win’. Just think about those two words for a moment. Why are they always rolled out following a northern hemisphere team’s victory over their southern counterparts? The answer is simple: wins are very rare. During their broadcast from the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, the BBC showed a table of stats that made grim reading for any fans of the Six Nations sides. It showed how each of the teams had fared against the southern hemisphere since 2007 (by which they meant New Zealand, South Africa and Australia). It read like this:
Wales: Won 1, Lost 25.
Scotland: Won 3, Lost 9.
England: Won 4, Lost 18, Drawn 1.
Ireland: Won 2, Lost 13, Drawn 1.
France: Won 3, Lost 18.
Italy: Won 0, Lost 15.
So that’s 13 wins out of 113 matches in 7 years. That’s an 11% win rate, and has to rank as one of the worst records in sport. Of course, we are not ‘all in this together’ as these stats would suggest. Each of these six will be focusing on their own game. But even when you look at the individual team records, the result is no better. Scotland have the best win ratio of these sides, winning on 25% of the occasions since 2007 (although Ireland’s stats are looking marginally better after last Saturday’s win). And so the equation proposed at the top of this piece is confirmed. International rugby in the northern hemisphere (at least in recent times) does equate to failure. ‘But England won the World Cup!’, we hear you cry. However, 2003 is fading away in the annals of rugby history and, as it does so, the south’s grip on the world stage has taken hold.
Can the situation change? Of course it can. That’s sport. But two year’s ago (when the Red Rugby blog was set up) there was a feeling that the gap between north and south was slowly closing thanks to the efforts of (mainly) England and Wales at that time. But those two sides have not kicked on since then. The SANZAR countries have. Ireland have proved it can be done (and they were so close to doing it against the All Blacks last year too) and, at present, they seem to be the north’s best bet in breaking the south’s hegemony. But any fightback against that dismal record above (whether from Ireland, England, Wales or the rest) will now have to be sudden, sharp and unexpected. With less than a year to go before Rugby World Cup 2015, a slow turning around of the situation is off the table.
Despite this though, next year’s world cup does offer a golden opportunity for the northern sides to strike back. Having the Webb Ellis trophy this side of the equator counts for much more in the north v south debate than any grid of win ratios could. It only takes a couple of good matches against the traditional ‘big three’ (possibly even one) and the biggest prize in rugby union could be landed by a Six Nations side. The problem is that, at present, most don’t look capable of notching up even that single win come world cup time. They need to get in the habit of winning against these teams and the remaining autumn internationals are their last chance to do this.
Which brings us to this weekend’s matches. Can we better last week’s fare of played six, won four (which was one of the better weekends in recent times thanks to victories over the Springboks, Samoa, Fiji and Argentina)? Well, Wales should comfortably dispatch Fiji, as will Ireland with Georgia. Scotland have no chance against the All Blacks. The remaining matches (England v South Africa, France v Australia and Italy v Argentina) are all a bit up in the air/could go either way. Our prediction? Three wins out of six. But a few more wins wouldn’t go amiss as we head towards RWC2015. Time is running out.