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It’s a battle of the hemispheres in the Rugby World Cup

Northern nations may dominate in the numbers of teams in the Rugby World Cup but Southern teams tend to dominate in the play, such as Australia’s win over England to throw the host nation out of the competition. Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

It’s a battle of the hemispheres in the Rugby World Cup

The history of the Rugby World Cup (RWC) is strongly associated with the rivalry between nations from the Southern and Northern hemispheres.

It is the only competition that all the nations in the world properly prepare for and from which you can get an idea of the balance of power between nations from the Southern and Northern hemispheres.

But is there more to this rivalry between Southern and Northern teams than just geography?

Since mid 2004, only national teams from the Southern hemisphere (New Zealand and South Africa) have been ranked first in World Rugby rankings, with New Zealand being at the top for most of the time.

So, it is interesting to look at the balance in terms of representation of national teams from the Southern versus Northern hemispheres at the different stages of the RWC.

It goes from 40% (Southern) vs. 60% (Northern) during the pool phases, to 47% vs. 53% during the quarter-finals, to 60% vs. 40% during the semi-finals and 63% vs. 37% in the finals (for first and third place).

The trend clearly shows that over the past eight RWC events, the relative representation of the Southern teams increases as the competition progresses.

Now if we look at the matches that took place between national teams from the Southern and Northern hemispheres, the statistics are moving. It is a success rate of 67% (for a total of 21 matches) at the quarter-finals level, 50% at the semi-finals level (for a total of six matches), and 90% (for a total of ten matches) at the finals level for the national teams from the Southern hemisphere.

No surprise then that teams in the semi-finals this year are all from the Southern hemisphere: Australia faces Argentina and New Zealand faces South Africa. Whatever the results here, it will be another Southern team taking home the Webb Ellis Cup!

A game changer in players

During the 1995 RWC in South Africa, the world of rugby union witnessed the rise of a young player from the Southern hemisphere, Jonah Lomu who scored an epic try for New Zealand during the quarter-final against England in Cape Town.

From this day it became clear that being powerful, tall and heavy were important features of a rugby union player.

With rugby union becoming professional in that same year, players and coaches started to focus on developing taller and heavier players who could run fast, break tackles or stop attacking opponents. That seemed to be the way towards victory… But at the time, national teams from the Northern hemisphere did not really have these kinds of players: they had players with flair and good technique.

From then on, all the national teams started to turn their back on those who were not considered big and powerful enough: it was decided that flair and technique could not compensate for a deficit in terms of watts, centimetres and kilograms.

The cup winners

So far, the 2003 RWC is the only event that was won by a national team from the Northern hemisphere, with England beating Australia in the final (20-17) while New Zealand took third place from France (40-13).

During the 2007 RWC, the national teams from the Northern hemisphere did pretty well during the quarter-finals with France winning against the All Blacks (ranked number one at the time) while England took the game against Australia.

But in the end, both teams lost against Southern teams during the final (South Africa won against England, 15-6) and match for the third place (Argentina won against France, 34-10).

RWC 2011, the matches played between New Zealand and France for first place (8-7) and between Australia and Wales (21-18) for second place were both taken by Southern nations, reflecting the superiority of the national teams from the Southern hemisphere.

RWC 2015, currently being played in the UK, is interesting as it shows the flair may have travelled across the Northern hemisphere, with Japanese players shining during their victory against South Africa during the pool phases. Japan showed that rugby union is not all about power, tallness and heaviness of the players.

New Zealand’s Julian Savea scores a try against France in their Kiwi’s winning quarter final game at Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales. Reuters/Andrew Boyers

Now, the match between New Zealand and France seems to provide a few lessons. When you put together physicality (powerful, tall and heavy players), flair and technique you get flying kiwis.

At the opposite end, when you try to sacrifice flair and technique to develop more powerful, taller and heavier players (or use the naturalisation process to be able to select them in the national team), you seem to obtain roosters stuck to the ground.

The Southern flair

At this point in time, it simply looks like the national teams from the Southern hemisphere have managed to develop players with serious physical abilities who also demonstrate superior technical skills and flair compared to players from the Northern hemisphere.

I don’t think that seeing the national teams from the Southern hemisphere being successful is a bad thing for any fan of rugby union. Players and coaches from the Southern hemisphere are offering a fantastic show to all the fans who truly value the game of rugby union.

By doing that, they are playing a key role in the promotion of this football code.

That also means that rugby federations, coaches and players from the national teams of the Northern hemisphere should all increase their efforts to identify how they can quickly bridge the gap with the national teams from the Southern hemisphere.

One thing seems quite obvious at this stage: the power balance between the clubs and the rugby federations seems to be quite different between the nations of the Southern and Northern hemispheres.

Australia’s Bernard Foley kicks a penalty to win the quarter final game against Scotland, at Twickenham Stadium, London, England. Reuters/Henry Browne

Nations from the South hemisphere seem to prioritise the success of their national teams. At the opposite end, the interest of the national teams seems to come after the interests of the professional clubs in the nations of the Northern hemisphere.

Interestingly, former New Zealand head coach, Sir Graham Henry, reportedly believes that the French Top 14 competition is poorly coached and its obsession with big salaries and high-profile foreign recruits has had a disastrous effect on the national side.

Current New Zealand head coach, Steve Hansen, has also blamed the French Top 14, indicating that the competition has been badly affected by a search for physicality that led French players to lose the flair that used to be feared by all the nations of the Southern hemisphere.

Fortunately, for the players coming from the Southern hemisphere to play (attracted by very decent salaries) in the Top 14 French clubs, their coaches can quickly revive their technical skills and flair so that they can perform optimally with their national teams.

By doing so, they offer a great show for all the fans of rugby union to enjoy, wherever they are from, Southern or Northern hemisphere!